For the first time in his career, Sacha Baron Cohen delivered a speech out of character. The occasion was the Anti-Defamation League’s 2019 Leadership Conference, held November 21 at the Javits Center in New York. Baron Cohen, the recipient of the ADL’s International Leadership Award, came to the lectern with no shoulder-secured Speedo, no prosthetics and no accent — just a chilling message about social media’s unique capacity to spread bigotry.
“Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities,” Baron Cohen, said, after a few solid jokes at his own expense and that of White House adviser Stephen Miller. “All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.”
The most dangerous organ for this propaganda? Baron Cohen argues it’s not a cable network or a legacy publication. The name to watch isn’t Murdoch or even Breitbart. It’s YouTube, Facebook, Google and Twitter. But the “Borat” actor specifically targeted Facebook, eviscerating an October speech by co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, which argued against regulation on his platform by invoking a first amendment defense.
“This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech,” Baron Cohen rebutted. “ 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.” Baron Cohen went on to appeal to responsibility for social media CEOs, and called Zuckerberg’s claim that regulating Facebook echoes the actions of repressive societies “incredible.”
“This, from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees,” Baron Cohen said, naming the “Silicon Six” as Zuckerberg, Google head Sundar Pichai, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki at and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
Baron Cohen called this chokehold on the free market of ideas “ideological imperialism,” argued for government oversight and excoriated Facebook and Google for allowing Holocaust deniers and sites to remain visible and accessible.
“There is such a thing as objective truth,” Baron Cohen said. “ Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”
This pivot to a more serious public face for Baron Cohen was a long time coming. While the comedian has been active in civil rights since his early days in England, his comedy largely kept this background as subtext for his provocative character work.
“I admit, there was nothing particularly enlightening about me — as Borat from Kazakhstan, the first fake news journalist — running through a conference of mortgage brokers when I was completely naked,” Baron Cohen said in his speech Thursday. “But when Borat was able to get an entire bar in Arizona to sing ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well,’ it did reveal people’s indifference to anti-Semitism.”
Ironically, that last stunt drew a statement of concern from the ADL when “Borat” was released in 2006, arguing that while Baron Cohen’s intentions were noble, “the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”
But Baron Cohen has proven to be capable of more than just his old schtick — a schtick that continues to evolve and expose both those in power and, more controversially, civilians. The actor recently gave a stirring performance as Egyptian-born Israeli operative Eli Cohen in Netflix’s “The Spy,” earning him critical attention for a non-comedic role. Likewise, the ADL keynote revealed a more mature side of the man we first encountered as Ali G.
Sure, he got in a few good punchlines here and there, but, for the parts that mattered most, no one was laughing.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.