Sacha Baron Cohen Is Wrong About Social Media, Wrong About Section 230… And Even Wrong About His Own Comedy
from the that's-not-how-any-of-this-works dept
I honestly did not think I’d ever be writing about Sacha Baron Cohen’s thoughts on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but this is 2019 and nothing makes sense any more. And because nothing makes sense any more, I’m going to start out discussing Sacha Baron Cohen’s views on CDA 230 by actually talking about magician Penn Jillette. Jillette has a podcast called Penn’s Sunday School that is often really, really good. And he actually talked about Sacha Baron Cohen in the latest episode — which, bizarrely, is not on the page I linked to, because it appears that Penn and his team stopped updating their podcast webpage last month.
This was the second time in recent episodes that Jillette talked about Cohen, and he made a really great point, noting that Sacha Baron Cohen and many of his supporters believe that what Cohen is doing is showing the “true nature” of how awful people are, by getting them to do awful things. But, Jillette argues, in a fairly compelling way, the opposite may actually be true. His belief is that Cohen is actually demonstrating how nice most people are, in that when they’re approached by someone asking them to say or do something, they want to be nice and accommodate the person who’s asking. The argument, which Penn explains in much more detail, is that if someone is talking to you in person, you want them to like you and you want to be nice to them, and thus if they ask you do something silly or crazy, you might just do it out of kindness or, in some cases, just “playing along.” And thus, his argument is that Sacha Baron Cohen totally misunderstands his own comedy and what it shows about human nature and how people “really are.”
He made the argument more fully last week, in the November 11th episode (if you can find that), where he said:
When I watch Borat, okay, it was alright and funny. But he’s an incredible performer. One of the greatest actors ever seen, Sacha Baron Cohen. And deeply, deeply funny. And I’ve heard from Trey & Matt, the South Park guys, (they know him) that he’s a wonderful guy. All that…. And I heard his new show is fabulous. But… he went on and said that the Borat movie showed how much anti-Semitism there was in the US, because people went along with him saying all these things. And I just don’t think it shows that.
I think it shows that people are kind — especially to someone who seems awkward and out of place. And they will say most anything to make them comfortable. And right when all the Ali G and Borat stuff was happening on HBO. Right during that, there were these two girls, they were 16 or something, from Japan. And there was a show, we were told, that they had won. And their big win was that they were able to meet any celebrities in the world that they wanted to meet. And they chose Penn & Teller!
So there were these 16-year-old fans of Penn & Teller from Japan, and were flown over by this TV company. And we’re backstage in the monkey room, in the green room, and there are TV cameras set up. And, one person kinda sorta speaks English. Everyone speaks more English than I speak Japanese, but they’re not fluent. And the two girls speak very, very, very small amounts of English. And they’re doing an interview with us, and spending time with us, and having us hold up fans and put on hats that are Japanese, but it would all feel racially insensitive if we were just doing it. But these two Japanese girls were telling us to do this. And there’s cameras rolling. And there are producers. And they’re saying “hold up the fan and bow and say this” and it seemed a little bit burlesque-y as to the Japanese culture, but we were being led by people from Japan…
Then on stage they had us come out with our fans and got a shot of it, and had us saying stuff in Japanese. And they were asking interview questions that did not make any sense. And sometimes they were saying things that I think were the opposite of what they meant. And I was answering and going along with them and doing the best job I could to go along with them and make them feel comfortable. And while I was doing that, I kept thinking about Borat and Ali G and how if he came in to do an interview with us, I would do it exactly like those people he’s lampooning.
So I think the stuff he’s doing is brilliantly funny. What he’s demonstrating is not that people are willing to say something that’s anti-Semitic, but that they’re willing to bend over backwards to make someone comfortable.
On the latest episode that just came out this week, he revisits this point and references someone else’s discussion about a specific episode of Cohen’s show and how Penn’s take resonated, since it was clearly people playing along with the situation, rather than doing something out of ill-will or malicious intent. To be honest, I think both views are probably correct to some degree. Some of what Cohen does is calling out and demonstrating ignorance and bias that was previously (mostly) hidden. But, there’s a part of it that probably is what Penn is saying as well: people performing for cameras and trying to be nice to a confused, but (they think) well-meaning stranger.
And, thus, I think the larger truth is that there are many factors involved in what makes people tick, and just taking a superficial view is rarely enough to really understand the deeper workings, motivations, and incentives.
The more I thought about this over the past few weeks, the more compelling an argument it was. And having just listened to the latest podcast, I had been thinking even more about it… just as I heard that Cohen delivered a keynote address for the ADL, in which he slams social media companies, claims that they’re effectively complicit in all the bad stuff on their platforms, and then slams Section 230 of the CDA. You can watch it here, via YouTube, one of the platforms he attacks:
And, while I’ve seen some friends and colleagues celebrating aspects of his speech — which is funny and entertaining and comes across as powerful — it occurred to me that he’s making the exact same mistake regarding social media/Section 230 as Jillette suggests (compellingly) that Cohen is making about what his comedy shows. He’s getting it all backwards, blaming the wrong thing, and misunderstanding what’s at the heart of the issue. Along the way, he also makes some factual mistakes. Indeed, it seems like while he’s touching on some truths, and some realities about how people are using social media and how social media companies operate, he’s so focused on the superficial aspects of it, that he’s completely misunderstanding the deeper workings, motivations, and incentives at play.
What do all these dangerous trends have in common? I?m just a comedian and an actor, not a scholar. 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.
That sounds good and many people believe this, but the facts simply don’t support this. Earlier this year, we discussed Yochai Benkler’s new book, the excellent Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, which is filled with charts and data showing something pretty damn clearly: most of the disinformation and misinformation didn’t go very far until it was “validated” by a mainstream news source, namely: Fox News. Yes, the lies and shams did start out on social media, but they were mostly ignored. Until Fox News validated them, then they spread like wildfire.
So while it’s good that Cohen admits that he’s not a scholar, “Network Propaganda” is written by three excellent scholars, and perhaps we should listen to them, rather than a comedian, on this subject?
Again, Cohen gets some stuff right, and the written version of his speech also does link to some research, but the conclusions he draws from it don’t actually seem supported by what he links to. He’s right that the algorithms on these platforms were tuned to increase “engagement,” and that resulted in a lot of bogus recommendations, dragging people further down a hole of radicalization. But, as with his view of his own comedy, he leaves out the actual human element. How many people is this actually influencing? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t know. How many people are being “radicalized” via these platforms? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t know. He assumes it’s so because we hear about it all the time. But where do we hear about it? Oh yeah, back on the mainstream news.
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.
I’ve heard similar claims before, but it doesn’t actually seem supported by much evidence. Yes, some people believe utter lies and racist bullshit. But they believed that before. And, at a time when similar rhetoric comes directly from the President of the United States and some of his top aides, it’s difficult to see how this is an internet problem, rather than one that lays deeper in our society and human nature.
Cohen’s “solutions” to this are equally backwards and often silly. He spends much time going after Mark Zuckerberg in particular, which is fine, but he misunderstands or misrepresents nearly every point that he’s talking about. Indeed, I’d argue that Cohen’s attacks on Zuckerberg are just as “fake news” as some of the content he’s complaining about. Cohen mocks Zuckerberg’s point that choices Facebook makes are “choices… around free expression.” There are many great criticisms of Zuckerberg’s confused notions of free expression (if you want to read a good one I’d recommend Jameel Jaffer’s Facebook and Free Speech Are Different Things). But Cohen’s point is not that. He first makes a correct point, that Facebook is not the First Amendment and can make any decision it wants about who and what to host:
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.
But later in the speech he contradicts this point, twice over. First, despite claiming (correctly) that the 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to Facebook’s hosting decisions, later on he directly urges Congress to regulate speech on Facebook, which is very much prohibited by the 1st Amendment. Second, since so much of his argument is that Facebook and other internet companies need to be more aggressive in pulling down speech, you’d think he’s support Section 230, which is what enables them to do so.
But, instead, he blindly, and confusingly, attacks it:
In every other industry, you can be sued for the harm you cause. Publishers can be sued for libel, people can be sued for defamation. I?ve been sued many times! I?m being sued right now by someone whose name I won?t mention because he might sue me again! But social media companies are largely protected from liability for the content their users post?no matter how indecent it is?by Section 230 of, get ready for it, the Communications Decency Act. Absurd!
Fortunately, Internet companies can now be held responsible for pedophiles who use their sites to target children. I say, let?s also hold these companies responsible for those who use their sites to advocate for the mass murder of children because of their race or religion. And maybe fines are not enough. Maybe it?s time to tell Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of these companies: you already allowed one foreign power to interfere in our elections, you already facilitated one genocide in Myanmar, do it again and you go to jail.
This is so backwards and confused that it’s difficult to know where to start. Other than to note that the “absurd” part is in Cohen’s description of all of this. First, the point of Section 230 is not about removing liability, but about properly applying the liability to the party who actually broke the law. He’s right that people can be sued for defamation. Because they said something defamatory. Section 230 makes sure that those who are defamed sue those who defamed them — and not the intermediary tool that was used to publish the defamation.
And his apparent shock that Section 230 was part of a law called the “Communications Decency Act” demonstrates his complete lack of knowledge of the history of the law — and how it originated as a law for widespread censorship of the internet — which was all thrown out as unconstitutional. Section 230 is all that remains. Perhaps someone should send him a copy of Jeff Kosseff’s book, which explains all the history.
His claim about “internet companies can now be held responsible for pedophiles” seems to be a near total misreading of last year’s passing of FOSTA, which added an exception to Section 230 for sex trafficking (not for pedophilia). And, of course, as we’ve pointed out way too many times, Section 230 has never protected sites from federal criminal charges in the first place.
The final point is also nonsense: how, exactly, is Mark Zuckerberg supposed to prevent everyone from misusing Facebook (to avoid apparent jail time)? Cohen’s answer in the speech is a mixture of ignorance and nonsense. He suggests hiring as many people as it takes… and also not posting stuff to the internet until it’s been reviewed.
It only seems fair to say to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter: your product is defective, you are obliged to fix it, no matter how much it costs and no matter how many moderators you need to employ.
But that assumes, falsely, there there is a solution that is just “hire more moderators.” This is a riff on the standard “nerd harder” idea, but it’s equally nonsensical. We’re right back to the Masnick Impossibility Theorem. He’s assuming there’s some optimal level of content moderation that can be reached by just throwing more resources at it. There is not. He might as well be suggesting that the answer to all the bigots in the world is for Hollywood to hire more Sacha Baron Cohens until they expose them all. It’s a silly suggestion that makes no sense.
Furthermore, it doesn’t take into account a much larger issue that has been the subject of many discussions among content moderation experts: the human cost of content moderation. It takes a huge toll on people’s lives to sit them in front of computers and make it their job to look at the worst stuff being posted. And Sacha Baron Cohen wants to force more people to do that job? Really?
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?
This is right back to a “nerd harder” idea, that shows a catastrophic level of ignorance of the scale here. Having more time would not have stopped the video of the New Zealand shooting from spreading online. That’s not how it works. It also grossly underestimates what this would mean for the internet. It would turn it into TV. In which you’d have a small number of gatekeepers handpicking what shows were allowed, and everything else would be blocked. This may be what Hollywood would like to see the internet turn into, but it would destroy nearly everything good and powerful about the internet today and its fundamental nature as a communications medium.
Cohen also seems to jump on the bandwagon of those ignorant of Section 230 by saying that these big internet companies should be declared “publishers,” as if that would do anything.
It?s time to finally call these companies what they really are?the largest publishers in history. And here?s an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines and TV news do every day. We have standards and practices in television and the movies; there are certain things we cannot say or do. In England, I was told that Ali G could not curse when he appeared before 9pm. Here in the U.S., the Motion Picture Association of America regulates and rates what we see. I?ve had scenes in my movies cut or reduced to abide by those standards. If there are standards and practices for what cinemas and television channels can show, then surely companies that publish material to billions of people should have to abide by basic standards and practices too.
Except… no. All of that, again, is talking about concepts that were brought about (often controversially, or sometimes through questionable legal means) for broadcast media. But the internet is not about broadcast. It’s about communications. It’s about enabling anyone to communicate with anyone. Should we have “standards and practices” for how the telephone is used? Should the Postal Service read through all your mail and not send it on if you say bad words? That’s what Cohen is asking for. You don’t apply broadcast standards to communications systems. It just doesn’t work that way.
Hell, referencing the MPAA’s ratings system is really, really sketchy, since the MPAA ratings system was a direct outgrowth of the Hays Code, which was used to censor films for decades, as there was a moral panic about “decency” in filmmaking. People look back on that era with regret at how that stifled free expression. For Cohen, of all people, to use that as an example of what we should bring to the internet is striking. Strikingly stupid and censorial.
In every other industry, a company can be held liable when their product is defective. When engines explode or seatbelts malfunction, car companies recall tens of thousands of vehicles, at a cost of billions of dollars.
Here’s the problem: the assumption here is that it’s these internet companies that are “defective” rather than human nature and society itself.
Cohen obviously means well. But, as Penn Jillette noted about Cohen’s comedy, it appears he’s getting the wrong message out of how people behave on the internet. Some people are bad and behave badly. But many more are wonderful, and the internet has enabled them to connect and communicate as well, often in much greater numbers, and enabled them to do even more powerful things for good. Because, as Jillette points out, most people are, in fact, pretty good deep down inside. Let’s not throw the internet “down the well” because some people misuse it. Let’s use the internet to spread more good ideas, better help people who need it, and focus on realistic ways to stop hatred, rather than fantastical ideas that sound like they came from the mind of “wanna-be-gangsta Ali G” rather than “brilliant” Sacha Baron Cohen.