Sacha Baron Cohen slammed Facebook and other large social media platforms as "the greatest propaganda machine in history" in a searing speech Thursday night.
Addressing the Anti-Defamation League's Never Is Now summit, the actor — who is known for using his satirical personas such as Borat, Bruno and Ali G to highlight bigotry around the world — tore into technology companies for not doing enough to clamp down on hate speech and conspiracy theories.
"Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts," Cohen began, describing what he said was his first speech in two decades in which he was not in character.
"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," he said to applause, speaking as the recipient of the ADL's International Leadership Award.
Cohen called out the leaders of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google for allowing the spread of hateful and inaccurate content to proliferate through algorithms that he said the companies depend on to keep their audience engaged.
"It's why fake news outperforms real news," he said, later adding, "The rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner."
Facebook initially declined to comment on the speech. Later on Friday, the company said that Cohen misrepresented Facebook's policies.
"Hate speech is actually banned on our platform," Facebook said in a statement. "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."
While Cohen acknowledged that social media companies have taken some steps to reduce inappropriate content on their platforms, he called those measures "mostly superficial" as he specifically attacked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Zeroing in on what he said was a "ludicrous" speech that Zuckerberg gave last month at Georgetown University, Cohen said Zuckerberg was incorrectly portraying the issue when he said tighter regulations on Facebook would affect its ability to be a platform of "voice and inclusion."
"This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet," Cohen said. "Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach."
He compared Facebook to an upscale restaurant and said internet companies should have the same responsibilities as a restaurateur when it comes to protecting customers.
"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."
Cohen is far from alone in his contempt for social media companies. Also Thursday, former President Barack Obama took aim at top technology corporations, arguing that they have made the public more divided.
"Part of what happens is that people don’t know what’s true and what’s not, and what to believe and what not to believe," Obama told Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco.
“That’s part of why we’re having so much trouble in our political culture,” he added, according to CNBC. “But it’s not just affecting politics. We are siloing ourselves off from each other in ways that are dangerous.”
Earlier Thursday, following an NBC News report that President Donald Trump hosted a previously undisclosed dinner with Zuckerberg and Facebook board member Peter Thiel at the White House in October, presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., tweeted, "This is corruption, plain and simple."
Cohen argued social media platforms should be held to the same stringent regulations that other large industries are.
“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.'"
"The ultimate aim of society should be to make sure that people are not targeted, not harassed and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love or how they pray." he said.
"If we make that our aim — 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."