At the much heralded Anti-Defamation League 2019 “Never is Now” Summit on anti-Semitism in New York City that was held on Thursday at the Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan’s west side, comedian, film producer and social activist Sasha Baron Cohen told thousands of attendees at racial and religious hate was being not only tolerated but intentionally promoted by such social media platforms as Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube, to name just a few.
By: Fern Sidman
During the afternoon plenary session, Baron Cohen was presented with the 2019 ADL International Leadership Award, which pays tribute to those “exceptional individuals whose vision, imagination and creativity have left an indelible mark upon the global community.”
Baron Cohen has used humor and satire to expose people’s inherent biases by depicting racists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, Islamophobes and others are deeply flawed, ordinary people whose prejudices are ultimately, laughable.
As a celebrity and public figure, Baron Cohen has not shied away from taking on tough subjects off-screen, having recently spoken out about the abysmal failure of social media companies to adequately address the rampant racism, anti-Semitism and hate on their platforms.
On Thursday, however, Baron Cohen took his criticism of internet companies and social media platforms to a new level as he took them to task in his acceptance address.
He began his remarks by offering his audience some background on his commitment to social justice.
“I’ve been passionate about challenging bigotry and intolerance throughout my life. As a teenager in the UK, I marched against the fascist National Front and to abolish Apartheid,” Baron Cohen said. “As an undergraduate, I traveled around America and wrote my thesis about the civil rights movement, with the help of the archives of the ADL. And as a comedian, I’ve tried to use my characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice,” he declared with a marked passion reverberating in his voice.
Baron Cohen spoke of the threat to democracies the world over and the horrific escalation of autocratic regimes. “Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history, ” he intoned.
He added, “Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”
Referencing the character he made famous known as Borat, Baron Cohen said, When he got that bar in Arizona to agree that “Jews control everybody’s money and never give it back,” the joke worked because the audience shared the fact that the depiction of Jews as miserly is a conspiracy theory originating in the Middle Ages. 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.”
Before launching into a scathing critique of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Baron Cohen said, ” I believe it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.”
Baron Cohen said that Zuckerberg offered up implausible excuses for allowing hate speech to proliferate unchecked on Facebook.
He said that “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. I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.
Second, Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on what’s posted on social media would be to “pull back on free expression.” This is utter nonsense. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law” abridging freedom of speech, however, this does not apply to private businesses like Facebook. We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.”
Baron Cohen did not stop there, as he told his audience that Facebook and Zuckerberg were not exclusively responsible for being accomplices of hate speech, vile bigotry and social anarchy.
He also placed the blame on other Silicon Valley moguls who he said were focused on fattening their wallets rather than focusing on their social responsibilities to quell hate speech.
Blasting Zuckerberg for conflating the governmental regulations imposed on Facebook to the actions of “the most repressive societies”, Baron Cohen then said that Zuckerberg is “one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees. He said that the Silicon Six include Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter.”
Also being honored at the ADL summit was Chobani founder and CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya. The yogurt company founder was presented with the ADL’s Courage Against Hate Award in recognition of his tireless efforts to imporve the lives of refugees around the world. Ulukaya, who immigrated to the US from Turkey in 1994, has made a commitment to hiring immigrants and paying faire wages to his employees.
Through his constant efforts as a socially conscious entrepreneur, Ulukaya has significantly advanced the ADL’s sacred mission to fight hate and to seek secure justice to all by providing a safe haven to refugees and immigrants.
Also addressing the thousands that attended the Never Is Now summit earlier in the day during the special sessions dedicated to panel discussions as well as an eclectic array of intellectually stimulating and thought provoking workshops were such prominent members of the journalism community as Jodi Rudoren, the editor in chief of The Forward, Bret Stephens, an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, and Bari Weiss, an op-ed staff editor and writer at the New York Times.
A smattering of other speakers included Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Elan Carr, the Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism at the State Department, Joan Ryan, a member of parliament of the British House of Commons, Eric Goldstein, the CEO of the UJA Federation of New York, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and Sheila Katz, he Chief Executive Office of the National Council of Jewish Women.
In response to a recent dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes targeting clearly identifiable Jews in Brooklyn, the ADL issued a press release last week announcing that they are doubling their funding for their premier education program, “No Place for Hate” in order to bring the program to twice as many schools in Brooklyn.
“The repeated violence and harassment of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn is unacceptable and must stop now, ” said ADL CEO Jonathan A Greenblatt at a recently held press conference at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. He was accompanied by Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, local faith leaders, elected officials and community partners. Mr. Greenblatt said, “since most hate crimes are born of ignorance for the ‘other,’ we believe that education, especially in the early years, can go a long way to building a foundation for understanding and a respect for diversity.”
In the early hours on Wednesday, November 20, In another Orthodox Jewish enclave known as Monsey in Rockland County, a 29 year old Orthodox Jewish man was brutally assaulted and repeatedly stabbed by two assailants as he walked to synagogue for the morning services.
“We are outraged by this terribly violent incident,” said Evan R. Bernstein, ADL NY/NJ Regional Director. “This is truly horrifying. A peaceful walk to shul in the early morning hours is how this man started the day and now he in serious condition in a hospital because of this attack. There is absolutely no room in our communities for violence. We must come together and stand shoulder to shoulder, not only to condemn this despicable act, but also work as a community to stem the tide of hatred and violence. We wish for the speedy and full recovery of the victim and hope this reward facilitates the swift apprehension of those responsible for this attack.”
The ADL (Anti-Defamation League) announced on Wednesday that it is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual or individuals responsible for the attack on the man in Monsey.