Sacha Baron Cohen accepted the International Leadership Award at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never is Now summit on anti-Semitism and hate Thursday. And the comedian and actor used his keynote speech to single out the one Jewish-American who he believes is doing the most to facilitate “hate and violence” in America: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
He began with a joke at the Trump administration’s expense. “Thank you, ADL, for this recognition and your work in fighting racism, hate and bigotry,” Baron Cohen said, according to his prepared remarks. “And to be clear, when I say ‘racism, hate and bigotry’ I’m not referring to the names of Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles.”
Baron Cohen went on to acknowledge the incongruity of the man who popularized the phrase “throw the Jew down the well”—as the anti-Semitic Kazakh character Borat—accepting an award from the ADL. “At times, some critics have said my comedy risks reinforcing old stereotypes,” he admitted, defending himself by explaining, “as a comedian, I’ve tried to use my characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice.”
But as he laid out with examples from Da Ali G Show and his more recent Showtime series Who Is America?, his humor only works when the majority of viewers “share the same facts.” For instance, he said, “When Borat got that bar in Arizona to agree that ‘Jews control everybody’s money and never give it back,’ the joke worked because the audience shared the fact that the depiction of Jews as miserly is a conspiracy theory originating in the Middle Ages.” Social media has changed all of that.
With all of this in mind, Baron Cohen turned to the rise of demagoguery, conspiracy theories and hate crimes around the world, and pointed to what he sees as the most logical explanation for this dangerous trend. “All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history,” he said.
And to him, no one bears more responsibility than the man who created Facebook. “It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar,” he said at one point. “At least that would explain his haircut.”
Baron Cohen spent the rest of his speech systematically dismantling a recent address given by Zuckerberg at Georgetown University in which he defended Facebook’s limited attempts to combat its massive problems and explained away its inaction as a defense of “free expression.”
Calling that argument “ludicrous,” Baron Cohen said, “This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Sadly, there will always be racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and child abusers. But I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.”
“Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem,’” he said. “So here’s a good standard and practice: Facebook, start fact-checking political ads before you run them, stop micro-targeted lies immediately, and when the ads are false, give back the money and don’t publish them.”
Ultimately, Baron Cohen concluded by saying that “if we prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses” then “maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history, we can save democracy, we can still have a place for free speech and free expression, and, most importantly, my jokes will still work.”
For more, listen to Sacha Baron Cohen on The Last Laugh podcast below: