Facebook has been rebuked for how it handled the 2016 campaign, after which it came to light that Russian and other foreign entities had used the platform to try to influence the election. Since then, the company’s handling of disinformation has been closely scrutinized by politicians, members of the media and the public alike. In a third-quarter earnings call this year, Zuckerberg called the 2020 election a “test.”
While accepting an award at an Anti-Defamation League summit last year, Cohen criticized the billionaires behind social media giants — Zuckerberg; Alphabet and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai; Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin; YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki; Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey — and referred to the platforms they lead as “a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories.” But he saved the skewering for Zuckerberg, likening him to Julius Caesar during the Roman Empire.
“The Silicon Six … care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy,” Cohen said. “This is ideological imperialism, six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law. It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.”
Cohen targeted Zuckerberg’s claim during an appearance at Georgetown University that stricter regulations on social media would “pull back on free expression,” calling it “utter nonsense.”
“We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society,” he continued. “We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.”
The “Borat” sequel released in October attracted the most buzz for a prank at the expense of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump’s personal attorney. (The prank led Trump to call Cohen a “creep,” to which Cohen responded by jokingly offering Trump a job playing “racist buffoons” after Jan. 20. He later rescinded the offer.) But other moments in the mockumentary expose the sort of disinformation that continues to proliferate online. At one point, the fictional Kazakh journalist swings by a far-right rally in disguise and leads a racist singalong referring to “the Wuhan flu.”
In a piece published by Time magazine ahead of the film’s release, Cohen said he spoke publicly as himself at the Anti-Defamation League event because he feared “that our pluralistic democracies were at risk of being destroyed by a flood of hate, lies and conspiracies spewed by demagogues and spread by social media.”
Trump “has a willing accomplice in Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook — a megaphone that history’s worst autocrats could only dream of,” he continued, pointing to QAnon and a conspiracy theory video claiming masks cause the coronavirus that was viewed by millions before Facebook and YouTube took it down.
“The shared reality upon which democracy depends has been shredded,” Cohen stated. “It would all be hilarious if it weren’t so dangerous.”