“Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'”
Edward R. Murrow
March 9th, 1954, CBS
The media has been dancing around this issue, for obvious reasons, far too long.
Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen delivered a blistering speech against social media and internet companies on Thursday evening and accused of them spreading “hate, conspiracies and lies.” Speaking at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never is Now summit in New York, Cohen specifically pointed the finger at Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube and accused the companies of pushing “absurdities to billions of people.” He called for a “fundamental rethink of social media.”
During his speech, Cohen rebutted points made by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg when the CEO spoke about free speech to Georgetown University in October. “First, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole issue as ‘choices around free expression’. That is ludicrous. 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.
Here is the full transcript, from his prepared remarks:
In a speech last night at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen attacked Facebook and other social media platforms for enabling the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation.
The speech was striking in its sincerity – Baron Cohen appeared as himself, rather than “in character” as one of his satirical personas – and its blistering tone.
Describing Facebook as “the greatest propaganda machine in history”, Baron Cohen argued that the company, which does not vet political ads for truthfulness, would have allowed Hitler to run propaganda on its platform.
Here is the full transcript, from his prepared remarks:
Conflict is attention. Attention is influence.
The Dark Psychology of Social Networks
Why it feels like everything is going haywire
By Jonathan Haidt & Tobias Rose-Stockwell
For example, in “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison wrote about his fear of the power of “faction,” by which he meant strong partisanship or group interest that “inflamed [men] with mutual animosity” and made them forget about the common good. He thought that the vastness of the United States might offer some protection from the ravages of factionalism, because it would be hard for anyone to spread outrage over such a large distance. Madison presumed that factious or divisive leaders “may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” The Constitution included mechanisms to slow things down, let passions cool, and encourage reflection and deliberation.
Madison’s design has proved durable. But what would happen to American democracy if, one day in the early 21st century, a technology appeared that—over the course of a decade—changed several fundamental parameters of social and political life? What if this technology greatly increased the amount of “mutual animosity” and the speed at which outrage spread? Might we witness the political equivalent of buildings collapsing, birds falling from the sky, and the Earth moving closer to the sun?
Facebook’s early mission was “to make the world more open and connected”—and in the first days of social media, many people assumed that a huge global increase in connectivity would be good for democracy. As social media has aged, however, optimism has faded and the list of known or suspected harms has grown: Online political discussions (often among anonymous strangers) are experienced as angrier and less civil than those in real life; networks of partisans co-create worldviews that can become more and more extreme; disinformation campaigns flourish; violent ideologies lure recruits.
Social media turns many of our most politically engaged citizens into Madison’s nightmare: arsonists who compete to create the most inflammatory posts and images, which they can distribute across the country in an instant while their public sociometer displays how far their creations have traveled.
From the December 2019 issue.
'Morality, if it is to remain or become morality, must be perpetually examined, cracked, changed, made new...not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.' -James Baldwin
Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation
By Andrew Marantz
Forget the decline of gatekeepers. Imagine a world bereft of gates and uncrossable lines, with no discernible rules.
All this is what Marantz calls “American Berserk,” and the damage has been severe on a worldwide scale. Marantz is right to worry. As I have written in my Opinion columns for this newspaper, I have seen firsthand how social media sites amplify villainous voices and weaponize them, too — and it’s not clear they can be controlled. The optimism of social media’s creators has been overshadowed by the cynicism of the vicious propaganda spewed on their platforms.
In a recent column for The Times, titled “Free Speech Is Killing Us,” Marantz sounded the alarm. “Having spent the past few years embedding as a reporter with the trolls and bigots and propagandists who are experts at converting fanatical memes into national policy, I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood,” he wrote. “The question is where this leaves us. Noxious speech is causing tangible harm. Yet this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we — the government, private companies or individual citizens — be doing about it?”
Unfortunately, he has no real answers, except that all things eventually fall apart. Perhaps the jig is up, as the big platforms and the regulators who worry about what they have wrought begin to crack down on the system they’ve established. “The ranking algorithms on social media laid out clear incentives: provoke as many activating emotions as possible; lie, spin, dog-whistle; drop red pill after red pill; step up to the line repeatedly, in creative new ways.”
When Nazi planes dropped bombs on London, Edward R. Murrow climbed to the rooftops. Despite personal risk & the fear his signal would lead bombers straight to him, he brought the horrors of Hitler’s war to the ears of listeners around the world.
[Stand Up Ideas: Founded by Evan McMullin, & Mindy Finn to strengthen Americans’ commitment to democratic ideals & norms through civic education & leadership development.]
Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one.
Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die—and how ours can be saved.