Beyond Borat: Sasha Baron Cohen shreds Facebook

Last week, in an address to America’s Anti Defamation League, Sasha Baron Cohen launched a full-throated assault on social media in general and Facebook in particular. Professor Scott Galloway of NYU described it as “the most important speech you will hear all year”. Let’s look at why...


Firstly, as a lover of rhetoric, influence and persuasion, there was much about Cohen’s speech that appealed to me. For one thing, he said more in 24 minutes than many activists say in a lifetime. For another, it was a candid look at the actual person behind such outrageous characters as Ali G, Borat and Bruno. When the occasion demands it, Cohen scrubs up well and the contrast somehow added to his clout. What impressed me most was Cohen’s backstory, real proof that he is no mere soapboxer. “I’ve been passionate about challenging bigotry and intolerance throughout my life,” he said, reflecting on how as a teenager he marched against the UK’s fascist National Front as well as apartheid. Later, as an undergraduate, Cohen travelled the length and breadth of the US to research his thesis on the Civil Rights movement. And, though many might disagree, he explained how his outrageous movie characters were conceived of to make people “let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe...which includes their own prejudice.” Though on the night he was every inch the cultivated public figure, Cohen couldn’t resist the urge to skewer a few prominent personalities:


  • Stephen Miller, a far right-wing political activist and policy adviser for Donald Trump: “Thank you all for your support in fighting racism, hate and bigotry. And to be clear, when I say ‘racism, hate and bigotry’ I’m not referring to the names of Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles.”


  • Mark Zuckerberg - who Cohen accused of being more interested in boosting his share price than protecting democracy: “it’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.”


Space precludes further commentary on the speech itself and besides, you can read it yourself here. But there’s more to the topic. To appreciate fully the gravity of Cohen’s warnings, we must see his speech as part of a growing chorus of concerned and dissenting voices. Intriguingly, the first speaks from beyond the grave and dates back to the birth of America itself.


In 1787 Founding Father James Madison penned an essay entitled “The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”. It was one of a series of 85 articles that became known as the Federalist Papers. Their authors were at pains to demonstrate how the freshly drafted Constitution would provide American society with the mechanisms to contain and mitigate the malignant forces that had strangled so many other self-governing societies at birth.


The purpose of this particular essay, (also known as “No 10”), was to show how the Constitution would prevent the spread of “factions”. A “faction” was defined as any extreme entity or voice that “inflamed men with mutual animosity” and which, in the process, made them forget about the common good. While nothing could stop such factions from forming, the Constitution would reduce the probability of them “pervading the whole body of the Union”. Put another way, it would stop factions from going viral. How would the Constitution serve this outcome? With an array of clauses and mechanisms that moderated dialogue and encouraged reflection and deliberation.


For the most part, these safeguards worked reasonably well during the intervening years. In the 1960s, however, they began to fray at a rate roughly proportionate to the proliferation of media and the commensurate escalation of America’s Culture Wars. But then in the last decade, they began to unravel seriously. The first tug of the thread was the unbridled growth of Big Tech or, as Cohen described it, “The Silicone Six”. The second tug was the hyper-connectivity they enabled which, in the words of one columnist, was “a seismic shift of social and political boundaries”. The third tug came from the users themselves, the most dogmatic and disenchanted of whom hijacked the tech to erect what psychologists Tosi and Warmke call “moral grandstands”. This deadly brew amounted to a Hydra that fuels outrage, increases mutual antipathy and which accelerates the spread of malignant ideas and misinformation. With apologies to The Great Seal of the United States, A case of too much “Pluribus” and not enough “Unum”.


James Madison and the Founding Fathers would turn in their graves. Speaking for them in The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt warned that social media were rapidly dismantling the very apparatus upon which the superstructure of American society was constructed.


“Social media denies the big picture, focusing our minds on immediate conflicts and untested ideas, untethered from traditions, knowledge, and values that previously exerted a stabilizing effect.”


But perhaps the most concerning side-effects of this grandstanding is the massive blind spot it produces. Factions have so doubled down on their respective causes and ideologies that few, if any, are prepared to countenance that they (and not just the elected official in the White House) are somehow complicit in America’s greatest existential crisis to date. Writes Haidt: “They think that things will return to normal whenever he leaves. But if our analysis is correct, this will not happen. Too many fundamental parameters of social life have changed.”


Perhaps Cohen should have the final word here:


“Voltaire was right: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. And social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people”.


Can you help stop the greatest propaganda machine in history?


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