On Friday, Twitter banned Donald Trump from his favorite platform, citing the 45th president’s potential to whip up more violence after the week’s deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol. The ban followed Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to bar Trump indefinitely from Facebook, limiting the president’s ability to communicate directly to tens of millions of his most diehard supporters. The move kicked off praise from liberal sectors and condemnation from conservatives who believe it’s an example of Silicon Valley overreach.
For Sacha Baron Cohen, it was the culmination of an extensive campaign, one that has seen the comedian use his celebrity to mount an unusually consequential effort to press big tech to crack down on QAnon and other fringe and far-right groups. Shortly after Twitter enacted its ban, Baron Cohen, one of the most outspoken critics of social media’s role in spreading conspiracy theories and hate speech, was ebullient.
“We did it,” he tweeted. He followed that tweet with another message, “This is the most important moment in the history of social media. The world’s largest platforms have banned the world’s biggest purveyor of lies, conspiracies and hate. To every Facebook and Twitter employee, user and advocate who fought for this–the entire world thanks you!”
During an extensive interview for a recent Variety cover story on his star turns in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Baron Cohen made it clear that he was worried that social media platforms posed an existential threat to democracy.
“Authoritarian regimes rely on shared lies, democracies rely on a system of shared facts,” Baron Cohen said. “People have their own opinions about that system of shared facts. Social media is predisposed to spread lies and conspiracy theories, while the truth is quite boring and dull. So people don’t want to wait for the truth and they don’t want to share the truth.”
Baron Cohen first went public with many of those concerns in 2019 at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never Is Now summit, where he delivered a blistering take-down of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media companies hands-off approach to policing their content. He then helped form Stop Hate for Profit, a coalition of advocacy groups and civil rights organizations that included the NAACP, Free Press, and the ADL. That organization successfully mounted advertiser boycotts and convinced celebrities to stop posting on Instagram in protest. It’s one of the reasons that Facebook banned QAnon and Twitter started offering disclaimers on content that made baseless claims about election rigging. It was not a position, that of digital Cassandra, that Baron Cohen eagerly embraced.
“I’ve spent my entire career trying to shy away from publicity,” he told Variety during the cover interview, adding, “While I was aware of the dangers of social media from 2015 onwards, I was trying to find a celebrity who would actually take up the cause. They know who they are, but I approached a number of celebrities over the years, trying to say: ‘Listen, this is the issue right now. This is really dangerous. Will you be the mouthpiece for the cause?’ All of them refused.”
When he spoke to Variety in December, Baron Cohen was eerily prescient in outlining the risks he thought some of these claims of voting fraud posed even after Trump lost the presidency to Joe Biden.
“The danger of Trump and Trump-ism will remain,” Baron Cohen said. “We still have 80% of those who voted for Trump believing the election was stolen and that’s a very dangerous figure. I’m a comedian and an actor. I’m not a historian or a sociologist, but having spoken to some of the eminent historians who specialize in how democracies turn into authoritarian regimes, there’s a consensus that when you have a large body of the population who believe they’ve been wronged, that segment of the population can be used to do horrific things.”
The connection between that type of outrage and the violence it can provoke was vividly on display during the insurrection at the Capitol. Baron Cohen also predicted that social media platforms could have a deleterious impact on the ability of public health officials to encourage Americans to take the coronavirus vaccine.
“If [social media companies] don’t act fast to stop anti-vaxxers from spreading their conspiracy theories on social media, the amount of people who die will be hundreds of thousands, if not millions more,” he said.
Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley figures have been reluctant to crack down on conspiracy theorists because they argue it violates free speech. Baron Cohen doesn’t buy that argument.
“The tend to keep on spouting the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ without any real understanding of the purpose of freedom of speech and the definition of freedom of speech or that the United States has an exceptional view of freedom of speech that came about because of its exceptional history,” Baron Cohen said. “There are limits to freedom of speech in Europe that came about because of the effect of Nazism. There is a form of ideological imperialism whereby the views of a handful of billionaires in Silicon Valley is imposed on the entire world.”
The “Borat” star has a novel idea. He argues that Facebook, Twitter and other platforms should deploy an army of digital fact checkers and monitors to curb the spread of conspiracy theories.
“These are trillion dollar companies,” he said. “They’re run by some of the richest people in the world. There is huge unemployment now due to coronavirus.”
Baron Cohen went on to argue that these companies should say, “We are going to share some of that wealth. We are going to employ hundreds of thousands of people, potentially millions of people worldwide, and share these profits and use these people to help curb the excesses of our companies.”