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‘Your product is defective’: Sacha Baron Cohen slams Facebook for allowing hate speech

Sacha Baron Cohen accepts an award from the Anti-Defamation League on Thursday at the organization's Never Is Now summit against anti-Semitism and hate. (YouTube/Anti-Defamation League)

In his roles as characters like Borat and Bruno, actor Sacha Baron Cohen is famed for tricking real people into making outlandishly bigoted comments on camera, turning their prejudice into the butt of his jokes.

But on Thursday night, Cohen didn’t need any of his on-screen personas to rip into America’s biggest social media organizations for facilitating the kind of racism and hate he regularly lampoons.

In a speech at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never Is Now summit, Cohen spoke in his own voice as he skewered social media companies he called “a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories,” taking aim at the leaders of Google, YouTube and Twitter for not more actively removing hate speech from their platforms. But he reserved his most biting critique for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, whom he called “unaccountable” and compared to Julius Caesar during the Roman Empire.

“I’m just a comedian and an actor; I’m not a scholar,” said Cohen, who was accepting the ADL’s International Leadership Award. “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.”

Cohen is just the latest to take aim at Zuckerberg, who has faced widespread scrutiny for allowing politicians to lie in ads on Facebook and for secretly meeting with President Trump last month.

“This is corruption, plain and simple,” tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a presidential candidate, on Thursday after NBC News reported the dinner between Trump and the Facebook CEO.

Cohen, 48, ripped apart Zuckerberg’s recent comments at Georgetown University, where the Facebook leader suggested stricter rules for social media posts would “pull back on free expression.” Zuckerberg cited the work of civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., as an example of the type of voices Facebook aims to protect — a claim that drew a rebuke from the civil rights leader’s daughter, Bernice King, who compared Facebook’s policy of publishing false political ads to the politicians who spread conspiracy theories to stoke animosity toward her father.

“Zuckerberg said that social media companies should live up to their responsibilities,” Cohen said. “But he’s totally silent about what should happen when they don’t. By now, it’s pretty clear they cannot be trusted to regulate themselves.”

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Friday.

At one point, Cohen compared Facebook to a fancy restaurant and suggested Zuckerberg has the same responsibilities within his Internet company that a restaurateur would have in his dining room.

“Now, if a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants to kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant, a private business, be required to serve him an elegant eight-course meal?” Cohen said. “Of course not. The restaurant owner has every legal right, and, indeed, I would argue a moral obligation, to kick that Nazi out. And so do these Internet companies.”

The actor also slammed Zuckerberg for his stance on allowing Holocaust deniers to spread conspiracies about the mass genocide of Jewish people less than a century ago. Zuckerberg told Recode last year that he found Holocaust-denying posts “deeply offensive.” But Cohen said Zuckerberg did not want to take them down because the Facebook CEO said that “there are things that different people get wrong.” Cohen called Zuckerberg’s reasoning “madness.”

“At this very moment, there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust-denial sites with a simple click,” Cohen said on Thursday. He continued to berate the social media companies for allowing Holocaust denial to spread. “We have, unfortunately, millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust. It is an historical fact,” he said. “And denying it is not some random opinion. Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.”

Cohen suggested subjecting social media platforms to the same regulations that most other media, from newspapers and cable news to television and movie producers, have to follow and holding Internet companies accountable for the harm their products cause.

“In every other industry, a company can be held liable when their product is defective,” he said. “When engines explode or seat belts malfunction, car companies recall tens of thousands of vehicles at a cost of billions of dollars. 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.’ ”