Sacha Baron Cohen Links the Decline of Democracy to the Rise of Social Media, “the Greatest Propaganda Machine in History”

Presenting a keynote address at an ADL conference, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen wasn’t kidding around when he painted a bleak picture of our emerging world: “Today … demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason—the era of evidential argument—is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.”

What’s leading to these destabilizing changes? Baron Cohen could cite many reasons. But if pushed, he’ll emphasize one:

But one thing is pretty clear to me. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.

The greatest propaganda machine in history.

Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. 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. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.

You can watch his sobering talk above, or read the transcript here.

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Comments (10)
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  • Brad Bell says:

    The rise of social media coincides with the collapse of neoliberalism.

    2007 – iPhone introduced, ramping up social media use, and banks crash global economy in an orgy of fraud

  • Lonnie says:

    It’s pretty ironic that he doesn’t see himself as part of the problem. In his body of work, and even in this speech, he shows his skewed opinions. The examples he gives are anti-semitism and right wing extremism, but fake news has been propagated by the liberal media for many, many years before social media, yet he doesn’t use them as an example. He is just revealing that he is a product of his environment.

  • Dane Walton Jr says:

    Oh yes…if there’s one singular person that can set this entire world right, it’s the star of films such as Borat & Bruno.

  • R George says:

    This is the most thoughtful and thorough analysis of our current culture I’ve seen. Not only does he outline many unprecedented issues we face like the dismissing and replacing of actual fact and history with completely self-serving agenda-driven content in a time that feels like a Wild West of information dissemination, but he does the work off thinking through and sharing practical solutions aimed at the heart of the issue. We need more of this thought leadership from logical people right now. Love this.

  • gwr says:

    @Dane Walton Jr:
    Better Borat the the b-list bad actor of an inane game show like Celebrity Apprentice. At least Baron Cohen has intelligence and acting talent.

  • rob hawk says:

    All roads don’t have to lead to Trump. Every time is not the right time to bash Trump. I feel it may have skewed your perspective to where you see this hypocrite and C list celebrity as a glimmer of hope.

  • EWM says:

    Your losing your democracy because might makes right is immoral. You can’t get away with immoral behavior forever.

  • Art says:

    While you’re at it dismiss George Carlin For being the hippy dippy weatherman and Lenny Bruce for being a junkie.

  • Lukstah says:

    Why not? what is the basis of your comment? I see no point.

  • TexasHoldEm says:

    Doesn’t Sasha Baron Cohen practice fake comedy?

    Some needs to wake old Sasha up and let him know the internet companies are already doing their best to quell that diversity of opinion that he doesn’t like.

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