Borat Actor wants to Regulate Facebook – Analysis
My Analysis and Rebuttals on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Social Media Policy Proposals
On November 21 2019, Borat Star Sacha Baron Cohen gave his keynote address to the ADL’s Never is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate.
In it, he takes aim at social media companies for their role in facilitating rising hatred and misinformation. Further, he posits solutions that touch on free speech rights and technological feasibility.
This article is my analysis. I will be focusing only on what I can definitively say is true, and will be leaving inferences out to prevent my bias from influencing my ability to be impartial. That is not to say there is plenty of substance for rebuttal, as you will see.
If you haven’t, I’d encourage you to see the speech for yourself, so you have a clear picture of what I will be looking at today. I will not be highlighting all his points, only ones that I see as problematic.
I’ll summarise his beginning before getting into his arguments.
Cohen begins by defining the problem:
‘Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream’ and ‘Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march.’
Cohen then points to the likely culprit: social media.
‘All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history… The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged — stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear.’
Cohen defines the problem well here. The social media companies are economically incentivised to keep hateful speech and even outright lies on their platform. This is due to how user engagement has been observed to be driven by anger-inducing extreme content and the platforms primary source of revenue is via users being engaged to the aforementioned said content. If you aren’t familiar with these ideas, I’d encourage you to check out Tristan Harris’ work.
Next, Cohen moves on to rebutting one of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speeches.
‘Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on what’s posted on social media would be to “pull back on free expression.” This is utter nonsense. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law” abridging freedom of speech, however, this does not apply to private businesses like Facebook. ‘
‘We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.
If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant be required to serve him an elegant eight-course meal? Of course not! The restaurant owner has every legal right and a moral obligation to kick the Nazi out, and so do these internet companies.’
Cohen correctly points out that Facebook and other US companies are not constitutionally obligated to remove their users material from their platforms, given they are not US government entities. He then makes a compelling analogy where a restaurant would have the legal right and moral obligation to remove a threatening and hateful customer. The implication being that Facebook in a similar case, should do the same. In truth, his first point becomes redundant because, in the US there are limitations on freedom of speech and direct incitements to violence happens to be one of them. Facebook also regulates what is and is not acceptable on the platform via a similar policy. So although Cohen seems to be attempting to rebut Zuckerberg here, his attack falls flat.
‘Fourth, Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a “diversity of ideas,” and last year he gave us an example. He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust “deeply offensive,” but he didn’t think Facebook should take them down “because I think there are things that different people get wrong.” …
To quote Edward R. Murrow, one “cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument.” We have millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust — it is an historical fact. And denying it is not some random opinion. Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.
Still, Zuckerberg says that “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.” But at a time when two-thirds of millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s “credible?” How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie?
There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.’
From Cohen’s example, we can infer that at minimum, Cohen wants platforms to ban holocaust denial. To be logically consistent, that necessarily would mean Cohen wants all falsehoods to be prohibited. He further makes this clear in his last paragraph.
Cohen has now shifted his argument radically; from tech companies should ban incitements of violence to they should ban false information. This is a far departure from Cohen’s earlier statement that:
‘We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.’
In any case, now that Cohen’s proposal is clear, we can analyse how such a policy could be enacted, and what the consequences would be.
Let’s start with what would be necessary for enacting Cohen’s policy proposal. At a minimum, it would require someone somewhere to determine what is and is not true, and therefore what is and is not acceptable speech on the platform. Cohen makes clear that this responsibility would be placed on social media companies (see bold line above). Effectively, appointing Facebook and companies like it as a quasi ministry of truth. This contradicts an earlier argument he makes where he takes issue with the undemocratic nature of how social media companies have unrestrained power in deciding what is allowed on their platforms:
‘Third, Zuckerberg seemed to equate regulation of companies like his to the actions of “the most repressive societies.” Incredible. This, from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees. …
The Silicon Six — all billionaires, all Americans — who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism — six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law. …
Here’s an idea. Instead of letting the Silicon Six decide the fate of the world, let our elected representatives, voted for by the people, of every democracy in the world, have at least some say.’
What makes this all the more embarrassing is these arguments are made directly adjacent to each other, as can be seen in the way Cohen clearly starts each argument with numbering: ‘forth, third’, etc.
In any case, Cohen’s proposal for social media platforms to ban falsehoods although technically not being unconstitutional (the US First Amendment only applies to government entities), it does certainly violate freedom of speech as a principle and miss the broader point of why we have free speech in the first place.
Put simply; democratic societies have freedom of speech so the citizenry can speak truth to power. In the context of the relationship between a government and it’s citizens, it is a basic necessity that the relatively less powerful citizens must be able to publicly criticise the government so the population can be made aware of government wrongdoing. This is particularly important during elections, where criticisms of the government (e.g. corruption) are only going to be relevant insofar that people know about the malfeasance. In societies that do not enjoy this freedom, you can face retribution or even death for questioning the regime. Once freedom of speech is lost, the population loses its ability to hold the government to account.
So how does freedom of speech affect the social media realm? Well, the same power dynamic that exists between governments and its population also exists between social media giants and their users. We will not be able to hold Facebook to account for their numerous data privacy abuses, tax evasion, antitrust abuses and lack of regard for election interference if they themselves deem criticism of Facebook ‘false.’ It’s a typical case of a conflict of interest.
Further, given their monopoly status, social media companies effectively are the medium through which almost all speech is disseminated. Being banned off social media is virtually tantamount to having your ability to speak silenced, thus violating the principle of Freedom of Expression. Extrapolate this from the individual level to the level of society, and you’ve got yourself an authoritarian regime. Cohen can consider himself lucky that Zuckerberg doesn’t look to be granting himself the power to regulate speech on Facebook anytime soon. If he did, Cohen would ironically be one of the first people to fall victim to the consequences of his own proposal.
Let’s imagine for the sake of argument, the proposal was to have a ministry of truth be an independent entity that is democratically accountable. Even if this conflict of interest did not exist, even if the arbiters of truth were an independent organisation, putting an authority in charge of the truth makes it a tempting target for corruption. Our innate thirst for money and power makes the mere existence of such a powerful institution dangerous, regardless if Cohen believes we may democratically want it. Even if you trust the government today, what happens when it changes? When eventually you have someone like Trump or Bolsonaro take over the ministry of truth who says I have the democratic mandate to silence all opposition.
Cohen continues with another argument:
‘Here’s another good practice: slow down. Every single post doesn’t need to be published immediately. Oscar Wilde once said that “we live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” But is having every thought or video posted instantly online, even if it is racist or criminal or murderous, really a necessity? Of course not!
The shooter who massacred Muslims in New Zealand live streamed his atrocity on Facebook where it then spread across the internet and was viewed likely millions of times. It was a snuff film, brought to you by social media. Why can’t we have more of a delay so this trauma-inducing filth can be caught and stopped before it’s posted in the first place?’
Here, Cohen’s broader point is to have material be vetted before publication to social media platforms. Once again, we ask, what would be required to implement this policy. Given the vast speed and volume of material that is posted to social media, it would likely require an AI or Artificial Intelligence algorithm to go through and approve the content on an automated basis before publication. Here, we must consider the broader implications.
Not all companies have the capacity to create an AI system to vet speech, let alone ones that can do it accurately. YouTube for instance has been pilloried in recent years for it’s AI algorithms falsely flagging users content for being advertiser unfriendly, which led to the ‘adpocalypse’ where many content creators lost significant revenue. For example, offensive material like Nazism was to be demonetised, which led to World War 2 documentaries being swept up. The likely result of Facebook doing the same would be genuine breaking news being suppressed and further consolidation of their monopoly power.
In conclusion, I see Cohen is a well-intentioned actor who has his heart in the right place. He defines the problem well and pinpoints the root cause of the social media companies economic incentives brilliantly. However, it’s where he begins proposing solutions that problems arise. As shown, his speech was incoherent in places, and his lack of understanding of freedom of speech as well as technology led him to inadvertently propose solutions that would worsen the problem he aimed to resolve in the first place. It’s easy to say you’re against fake news. It’s much harder to craft effective policy, let alone policy that doesn’t create other unintended consequences.
Is Freedom of Expression perfect? No. As Cohen has pointed out:
‘at a time when two-thirds of millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s “credible?” How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie?
Freedom of Speech has its problems. But as Winston Churchill once said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest,’ and Cohen does not seem to be offering any compelling alternatives.