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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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Case for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valu­able “Deep Work” Instead, Accord­ing to Prof. Cal New­port

New Ani­ma­tion Explains Sher­ry Turkle’s The­o­ries on Why Social Media Makes Us Lone­ly

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

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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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