On Saturday June 27 in Olympia, Wash., Sacha Baron Cohen appeared incognito at a right-wing rally, leading the crowd in a chorus of gleeful murderous intent. In a false beard and overstuffed overalls, the “Who Is America” comic welcomed rallygoers at the pro-gun “March For Our Rights” event, to inject such “liberal” targets as CNN, Hillary Clinton and Dr. Anthony Fauci with “the Wuhan Flu,” or, more horrifically, to “chop them up like the Saudis do.”
Baron Cohen, instigator that he is, was spouting the most loathsome rhetoric imaginable in an effort to expose others’ willingness to play along. He’s done that for years to lawmakers, a former vice president and patrons at an Arizona dive bar. But for the past year, the actor has been condemning social media for providing a platform for this same kind of hate speech. Facebook is his favorite target, and he’s one of the movers behind Stop Hate for Profit, a coalition asking businesses to pull advertising from Facebook for the month of July for allegedly permitting incitement of violence against those protesting the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Stop Hate for Profit has had early success with major brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Coca-Cola and Baron Cohen’s appearance at the rally could be seen as something of a victory lap. A day later, a June 28 report from The Washington Post detailed Mark Zuckerberg’s equivocal response to hate speech on his platform. It revealed the comic and the tech CEO to be a compelling study in contrasts. While Baron Cohen uses his freedom of speech to goad those he disagrees with into exposing their true selves, Zuckerberg has deployed the cover of the First Amendment to protect the assets of his company, even when he had the initial impulse to act against hate.
For Baron Cohen, free speech is his most sacred cudgel and the defense that keeps many lawsuits at bay; for Zuckerberg, it’s largely an excuse.
In Baron Cohen’s 2019 keynote speech for the Anti-Defamation League’s Never is Now Summit, which prompted the creation of Stop Hate for Profit, the actor spent most of his time railing against Zuckerberg’s speech to Congress in October of that year, in which he defended Facebook’s goal to “uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible.” Baron Cohen drew a stark distinction between his own work as a provocateur and Zuckerberg’s responsibility as one of the “largest publishers in history.”
“When Borat got that bar in Arizona to agree that ‘Jews control everybody’s money and never give it back,’ the joke worked because the audience [watching the film] shared the fact that the depiction of Jews as miserly is a conspiracy theory originating in the Middle Ages,” Baron Cohen said. “But when, thanks to social media, conspiracies take hold, it’s easier for hate groups to recruit, easier for foreign intelligence agencies to interfere in our elections, and easier for a country like Myanmar to commit genocide against the Rohingya.”
Baron Cohen went on to refute each point of Zuckerberg’s rationale opposing new Congress-directed regulations for social media companies. Baron Cohen argued that his own performance art proves just how quickly conspiracy theories can lead to violence. For Facebook, few things short of a direct call for violence violated its standards.
According to multiple sources who spoke with The Post, Zuckerberg was tempted on multiple occasions to speak out against objectionable content, but was persuaded to stay quiet.
As early as 2015, Zuckerberg wanted to remove a video of then-candidate Trump pushing for his Muslim Ban from the website. Zuckerberg was convinced, The Post reports, to keep the video by Facebook’s Vice President of Global Policy Joel Kaplan, and the company settled on an informal policy of “newsworthiness” dictating what was allowed to stay up.
That guiding principle is reported to have caused Zuckerberg further distress. In the spring of 2016 he was talked out of writing a post condemning Trump’s calls for a border wall. Bit by bit, Zuckerberg’s advisors seem to have worn down his resolve, helping him decide that right-wing pages peddling “Fake News” would remain active in the interests of appearing evenhanded. This stance was later reinforced when an algorithm favoring family and friends was altered to keep conservative media active on Facebook’s scroll.
The company decided to take a laissez-faire approach and cite the First Amendment each time it was challenged, as in the instance of a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in which she was made to appear drunk. Meanwhile, Baron Cohen has invoked the First Amendment after alleged pedophile and onetime Senate candidate Roy Moore sued him for defamation for a segment on “Who Is America?” One instance speaks truth to power and uses a real person’s real, recorded, actions against them. The other video is faked and hard to defend without a disclaimer.
Baron Cohen has often wondered what would fail to meet the standards for Zuckerberg’s defense of “freedom of expression.” In his testimony to Congress, the CEO made the case for permitting Holocaust deniers the right to speak their piece on Facebook.
“If Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem,’” Baron Cohen contended in his ADL speech.
In the end, Trump campaign posts using Nazi-era concentration camp patches to denounce antifa marked a major reckoning for the company. Facebook removed the ads but not before high profile advertisers, pushed by Stop Hate for Profit, chose to boycott. For Baron Cohen, perhaps the most damning indictment of Zuckerberg in The Post’s reporting is how he has spoken with President Trump over the phone about his social media activity and tried to accommodate his most provocative messages around company policy. If he once felt like speaking against Trump, Zuckerberg now seems to have shifted to currying the president’s favor or trying to moderate his tone.
Buddying up to strongmen like Trump is not Baron Cohen’s style. At his best, he punches up. He supplies the rope and rafter and invites the powerful to hang themselves. When he comes close to Dick Cheney or a Georgia state representative, he will draw out their absurd phobias and fears. Zuckerberg, by contrast, hands these same men and women the world’s loudest megaphone and, in so doing, lends them credibility.
It’s a paradox that, while Baron Cohen regularly employs the talking points of the internet’s worst trolls, he’s pushing for a world that would find them silenced — and him out of work.
“In the end, it all comes down to what kind of world we want,” Baron Cohen said last November. “Our freedoms are not only an end in themselves, they’re also the means to another end — as you say here in the U.S., the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Baron Cohen will continue his act until we find our way to that foundational ideal. And Zuckerberg, staring down a loss in ad revenue, may finally stop pretending he’s not bothered by what he sees on his own site.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.