Late last month actor-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen made waves when he spoke at the Anti-Defamation League summit. In his speech accepting the ADL’s International Leadership Award, he launched a blistering attack on social media platforms for their lack of regulation of hate speech and fake news. He dubbed social media “the greatest propaganda machine in history”.
The main target of his scrutiny was what he called “The Silicon Six”; the figures behind Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google. He attacked them for “ideological imperialism — six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world”. Ironically, Baron Cohen’s speech was distributed widely on social media by the millions of people sharing his sentiments.
Baron Cohen’s motivation was fundamentally decent; to see the end to hate speech, discrimination against minorities, and to stamp down on fake news which has been tearing at the fabric of Western democracies. These are noble pursuits. It was, however, misguided. His well-meaning argument for more regulation is ultimately a Trojan horse carrying great potential for unfettered censorship that, if put into practice, would see the erosion of our civil liberties and free speech.
The abuse of free speech is no new phenomenon. People who spread vile lies about minorities and fuel hatred will always exist. As a consequence, void of censorship naturally there will be a plethora of abhorrent posts and publications on social media platforms.
But the way to fight this is not through regulation. It is through more free speech, not less. Freedom of speech, with the exception of defamation and the incitement of violence, is absolutely fundamental to addressing bigotry. The beautiful thing about freedom of expression being afforded to everyone is that people can engage in debate to ultimately produce the truth of the matter.
There have always been people who misuse their right to free speech, but clamping down on them feeds resentment. Suddenly hateful people have a legitimate claim to being oppressed because their speech is being censored.
Baron Cohen himself would most likely be subject to the censorship he is advocating. As an often outrageous and offensive comedian, frequently levelled with the charge of racial stereotyping, it is incredibly naive for him to think that he would escape the consequences of the censorship he is advocating for.
We must protect all free speech, even if it’s factually wrong, deliberately misleading — or even hateful. But the way to combat this is speaking out against intolerance and misinformation, in other words, more free speech. This is the most effective way to clamp down on hate speech.
Most decent people want to see an end to hatred and abuse, but these issues shouldn’t be addressed using authoritarian means.
Baron Cohen’s second issue was with fake news. He called for Facebook to “start fact-checking political ads before you run them, stop micro-targeted lies immediately”. But herein lies the problem. Do we really want social media CEOs to be the arbiters of truth and untruth? Social media platforms have already been engaging in censorship anyway, which is an outrageous assault on freedom of expression. The “ideological imperialism” of the Silicon Six that Baron Cohen decried would become exacerbated if it became the responsibility of social media to decide what is and what isn’t fake news. It would make the Silicon Six the infallible determiners of truth, a consequence Baron Cohen himself would despise.
In the wake of hostility, conflict and discrimination so prolific on our social media platforms, it is very easy to succumb to arguments calling for censorship. But the consequences are far worse; the ultimate disintegration of freedom of expression. Rather than becoming better at regulating hateful publications or misinformation, we must make a concerted effort to use our free speech to fact check and combat intolerance.
Baron Cohen concluded his speech with his hopeful vision for the future; if we prioritise 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, and, most importantly, my jokes will still work.
Most people would share these aforementioned ideals for society. But the ends he envisages won’t actually materialise via the means of censorship. They can be achieved when more people use their free speech to clarify misinformation and condemn those who promote hate. It is ultimately a cry for more free speech, not less.
Speech regulation and censorship is not the answer; it never is. Freedom of expression is the answer.
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