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As British actor-comedian, Sasha Baron Cohen, rose to accept the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership Award at its “Never is Now” event earlier this month, he must have felt naked. He had eschewed all of the disguises and satirical characters he’d adopted over two decades of film and TV work. He was speaking as himself, for himself. He’d never done that before in such a public setting.
He bared all for a number of reasons, related both to his acting career and his desire to weigh in on a critical social issue. His address launched a full-frontal attack on Facebook for its dismal record monitoring hate speech. It was shocking and unexpected because Cohen is best-known for donning disguises to embody characters like Ali G. and Borat to savage targets of his satirical wit.
Though Cohen is well known in the UK and U.S. for his jabs at social stereotypes, he was never known to speak out on major political or social issues. In fact, the comedian has often been pilloried for characterizations which many believe crossed the line from satire into mockery, bad taste or worse.
His speech was a “coming-out” for a new, serious persona who’s ditched his buffoonish past. In fact, he recently told an interviewer:
“I am done with the undercover work…It’s incredibly consuming in every aspect. It’s draining. It can be dangerous. It’s often unrewarding. You’re living a fairly miserable life. Obviously, when you produce good stuff, then it’s rewarding in the end. But the process itself is not fun.”
Returning to the ADL speech, Cohen began by savaging the leading social media platforms:
Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts….Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.
What do all these dangerous trends have in common?
All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.
Then he turned his sights on Facebook. He called CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s argument, in his Georgetown University speech against regulating political ads, “absurd.” The social media CEO was, he believed, hiding behind the mantra of “free expression,” when in fact the content he was defending:
…[Gave]…some of the most reprehensible people on earth the biggest platform in history… Sadly, there will always be racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and child abusers. But I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.
He railed against Zuckerberg’s refusal to censor Holocaust denial on Facebook the latter’s claim that it was merely an alternate perspective, which deserved to see the light of day on his platform–though those advocating it might be dead-wrong in their beliefs. Cohen skewered this view: “Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.”
Zuckerberg further argued that it was up to users, not him, to determine what was credible. Cohen scorned this morally vacuous claim, arguing that Silicon Valley titans were more interested in “their share price than…protecting democracy.” Zuckerberg and his fellow CEOs were, he said, “ideological imperialists,” who imposed their platforms and content on the world without government regulation. He called Zuckerberg an American “Caesar.”
Missing from Cohen’s critique was Facebook’s predisposition to amplify the voices of far-right extremists far more than competing groups on the left. Multiple mass murder attacks against mosques have been broadcast live by white supremacists on Facebook and other platforms. Burmese Buddhist monks exploited Facebook to organize genocidal attacks against the Rohingya Muslim minority, resulting in mass killings, rape and the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 people now living in squalid Bangladeshi refugee camps.
Facebook has also systematically censored and silenced Palestinian voices on its platforms. It shut down numerous accounts established by Palestinian media outlets which aired views supporting Palestinian civil and national rights. In many cases, it did so after lobbying by the U.S. and Israeli governments. The social media platform offered no explanation for its actions. In some cases, after it faced criticism, it restored some, but not all of the accounts.
Yesterday, the Guardian published a major investigative story on a lucrative Israeli scam exploiting Islamophobic content published on Facebook. It was designed to drive traffic to external websites filled with advertising, whose proceeds went into the pocket of the Israeli grifter who devised the concept. The owners of the Facebook pages who were exploited not only had no idea the scam artist was earning money off their pages, they said that the company never flagged any of the hateful content published by the Israeli. Even after the Guardian brought the scam to Facebook’s attention it persisted in claiming it doesn’t allow hate content on its site; contrary to the facts in this case.
Two of the major targets of the Israeli hate were Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both of whom have received countless death threats for their outspoken advocacy for Palestinians rights. Omar, in particular, has been the victim of several taunts and threats from no less than the President of the United States. Yet Facebook, somehow could not manage to police its own pages to eliminate this vile content.
The mastermind behind this financial scam was Ariel Elkares (the Guardian spells his name “Elkaras,” though he himself spells it “Elkares”), a young, disheveled, get-rich-quick type who lives in his mother’s home, reportedly in the town of Lod. The fact that Elkaras seems to be a lone wolf rather than a product of an official government campaign of hate does not lessen the severity of this case. Nor does it excuse Israel itself, which produced him. His right-wing hate social media hate machine originated in the sewer of racist Israeli attitudes toward Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians in particular. He was fed on it with his mother’s milk, so to speak.
Facebook ❤️ Trump
In a separate alarming development, Facebook embedded one of its advertising executives in the 2016 Trump campaign, where he tested advertising, tweaked algorithms, and even facilitated the campaign’s financing arrangements with the company in order to pay for advertising. Such social media marketing played a major role in Trump’s election victory.
Zuckerberg’s mentor is another far-right Silicon Valley billionaire, Peter Thiel, who is a long-time Facebook corporate board member. Thiel, who earned his wealth as founder of Paypal, which was eventually bought by Facebook, brought his protégé to the White House for a secret dinner with the President. It seems that despite protestations of being an honest broker in the realm of online speech Zuckerberg is “all-in” for Thiel’s brand of far-right corporate libertarianism.
Returning to Cohen’s speech, he suggests that Facebook and its social media competitors could not be trusted to police themselves:
By now it’s pretty clear, they cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. As with the Industrial Revolution, it’s time for regulation and legislation to curb the greed of these hi-tech robber barons.
He argues they should be treated not as commercial businesses, but rather as publishers and broadcasters, like TV, radio and print media. Just as the FCC regulates media content and sets limits on what can and cannot be said or aired, similar standards should govern these digital platforms.
Cohen demanded that Facebook, if it persisted in accepting political ads, must perform basic fact-checking to determine what is true and what are lies. The promotion of lies is a basic threat to our democracy and no corporate CEO defending his balance sheet and bottom line should be allowed to trump this fact.
He closes with this moving vision:
…If we prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses – then maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history, we can save democracy, we can still have a place for free speech and free expression…
Facebook Weaponizes Philanthropy
Facebook has developed a complex corporate strategy to combat all this bad press. It’s hired hundreds of corporate lobbyists who blanket the halls of Congress ensuring legislation favorable to its interests. It spent nearly $5-million on lobbying in the last quarter alone.
But it also works in more subtle ways. The robber barons of history–names like Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller–gravitated to philanthropy as a means of absolving their sins. Facebook is no exception. Last month, on the occasion of her parents’ 75th birthdays, COO Sheryl Sandberg announced (on her Facebook page, where else?) a $2.5-million gift to the Anti-Defamation League.
Her decision was prompted by her spiritual reckoning during Yom Kippur services when she contemplated the horrific attack on the Halle synagogue. Though no Jewish worshippers died, the terrorist later targeted a nearby kebab shop associating it with Turkish Muslims. Sandberg’s account neglected to mention the Islamophobic element of the attack.
Her synagogue reverie convinced her that the ADL was the perfect embodiment of her values and those of her parents:
For over a century, ADL has been fighting hate around the world. Their primary mission is confronting anti-Semitism, and they also work to reduce hate and bigotry of all kinds – racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc. – because they know that hate begets hate, and attacks on one group of vulnerable people can quickly lead to attacks on others…
This, of course, is ADL boilerplate. It leaves out the ADL’s leading role in the U.S. Israel Lobby, its attacks on critics of Israel, notably in the American Muslim community. It leaves out the ADL’s lackadaisical approach to homophobic violence, where it refused to denounce the white supremacist murder of a gay Jewish teenager in California.
Not to mention Sandberg’s role in seeking dirt against George Soros, as she attempted to prove he had a direct financial interest in criticizing Facebook (he doesn’t). Thus playing into the savage anti-Semitic attacks leveled by white supremacists like Viktor Orban and Yair Netanyahu against the liberal financier and philanthropist. In case, you couldn’t believe a Jew would be guilty of anti-Semitism or promoting anti-Semitic tropes, think again.
ADL History of Spying, Break-Ins Against Liberal Groups
Missing from this perspective is the tawdry history of the ADL in spying on individuals it labeled “pinkos,” civil rights and anti-apartheid activists, and even U.S. senators. In the 1980s, it hired a San Francisco police detective to do “black bag jobs,” breaking into offices of activist organizations to steal records and documents. It hired another undercover agent whose specialty was infiltrating Arab organizations posing as a pro-Palestinian activist. The “fruits” of their labors were shared with the South African apartheid regime’s intelligence bureau. The ADL spy even tailed ANC leader Chris Hani during a U.S. speaking tour, shortly before he was assassinated by one of the bureau’s assassins.
In all, it compiled files on 12,000 individuals and 950 groups. Among them were 4,500 members of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, an NGO modeling itself on the ADL and its mission. What did they all have in common in the mind of the ADL? They all criticized, if not ‘hated’ Israel.
While today’s ADL leaders are not responsible for these earlier misdeeds, the group has never apologized; never rendered an accounting for its behavior; never permanently foresworn such activities.
ADL’s Foray into Silicon Valley
The ADL was somewhat late to the party in understanding the power of social media and its social impact. But in 2017, it made a major commitment to partner with Silicon Valley, founding the Center for Technology and Society. Though the Center, as with the ADL itself, declares that its mission is to research and document hate speech online, in actuality the vast majority of its work calls out anti-Semitism and speech deemed anti-Israel. Of course, lobbying against anti-Semitic online content is laudable. But the problem is that the Center’s work largely stops there, while it’s platform and mission say otherwise.
Another critical, though unstated purpose of CTS was to tap into the extraordinary wealth of Silicon Valley billionaires. The venture has succeeded admirably. It has received funding not only from Sandberg, but from other sources like Pierre Omidyar, who offered $1.5-million in seed-funding for the new venture. Prospecting for such new funding sources is critical to the survival of the ADL as its aging cohort of largely white, male Jewish donors dies off.
Thus, CTS serves a two-fold purpose for the ADL: it taps into a critical social issue that lends the organization continuing relevance and helps replace the bread-and-butter funders who were the mainstay of the ADL over the decades.
So Facebook and the ADL have a lot in common. They both offer the world a good story. The ADL tells the world that it promotes tolerance and civil rights. Facebook tells the world it enables humanity to give expression to its greatest hopes and dreams. But under this veneer lies a dark underbelly; a subtext of greed and hate.
I contacted Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook and the ADL for comment. Facebook’s press team released this statement:
“Sacha Baron Cohen misrepresented Facebook’s policies. Hate speech is actually banned on our platform. We ban people who advocate for violence and we remove anyone who praises or supports it. Nobody – including politicians – can advocate or advertise hate, violence or mass murder on Facebook.”
The others did not respond.