In the age of internet, publishing has become faster and easier than ever. What once required a degree and weeks of editing and revising can now be sent to millions with the press of a blue “send” button.
While the internet has made global borders permeable and allowed for the democratic spread of ideas, it has also jeopardized traditional conceptions of news and journalism. Fact-checked, truthful news looks identical to fake news on social media now. Is this just the trade-off to modern technology or should it be addressed?
In his speech to the Anti Defamation League, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen argues social media companies have a moral obligation to address fake news on their sites.
“I believe that it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate conspiracies and lies,” Cohen said at the ADL conference. “A sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and to some degree our planet? This can’t be what the creators of the internet had in mind!”
Cohen eventually addressed the elephant in the room: his comedic history. He is famous for embodying characters that represent the most extreme stereotypes of a demographic. To educated viewers, Cohen’s comedy is effective. We know he is satirizing, and his characters point out the flaws of modern society. Yet, when Cohen finds people that are unfamiliar with his work, he reveals the darkest, ugliest parts of our world.
In his 24-minute speech, Cohen pointed out his characters have often provoked people to say racist and xenophobic things.
“And when — disguised as an ultra-woke developer — I proposed building a mosque in one rural community, prompting a resident to proudly admit, ‘I am racist, against Muslims,’ it showed the acceptance of Islamophobia,” Cohen said. “Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason — the era of evidential argument — is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed.”
Finally, in the second half of his speech, Cohen attacked social media’s biggest moguls. The “Silicon Six” are the American billionaires from Facebook, Google, Alphabet, YouTube and Twitter. He argues these people have a social responsibility to fact-check their media platforms.
“There is such a thing as objective truth,” Cohen said. “Facts do exist.”
In one of his most salient points, he asserts these sites are the largest publishers in history. Consequently, they have to abide by the same standards as any newspaper or TV station. They are not above the law and should be regulated.
Cohen suggests three main ways of implementing change to these social media platforms. First, political advertisements should be banned from websites. Some ads air false information, which completely undermines the point of political advertisement. Banning them altogether is Cohen’s solution for perpetuating false facts in a political context.
Second, he urges companies to slow down publication in order to fact check things before they go out to billions. Especially on Facebook, fake videos air to send false messages out through sharing and re-sharing. Facebook and others need to “live up to their responsibilities” and regulate their mediums.
Finally, Cohen believes governments should create legislation to combat fake news. Cohen no longer trusts media moguls to self-regulate, as we have been tricked time and again with promises to protect true information and privacy. There are laws that regulate print journalism, why should the largest publication platform be any different?
Now it’s time to analyze Cohen’s plan. Is it realistic, much less necessary? Most importantly, does it challenge freedom of speech?
I firmly believe in the need to regulate social media to weed out fake news. Freedom of speech is grossly overused as a justification for harmful publishing.
As Cohen addresses, fake news outperforms real news because studies show lies spread faster than truth.
Out in our real world, hate speech and bigotry do not have to be tolerated on private land. Cohen uses an example that a business owner has every right to remove a neo-Nazi who is shouting false information from his store. Private internet businesses have this same right and obligation.
While it sounds like a radical and unrealistic plan, social media regulation is not far-fetched. It could be as simple as amendments to journalism legislation through governments. This would protect the integrity of digital publication.
Furthermore, these social media companies are rich. Filthy rich. Hence, they should use that money for both a fact-checking and ethics department.
Whether those departments produce banners attached to false articles stating “this article contains false information” or remove bigoted and fake content, that is up for debate. I am personally not clear what would be most effective. What I am certain of is the need for regulation in any form, and efforts need to start now before we lose any confidence in what is true and what isn’t online.
To those afraid regulation will restrict freedom of speech, I hand you my frustrations. To be frank, if you are putting truthful and meaningful information online nothing would change! If you’re false messaging is taken down and you get angry about it, let that be a sign to reconsider the way you process information.
Fact-check, doubt and challenge your sources. This way, the individual citizen, the government, and tech giants can protect a mechanism that we shouldn’t have had to challenge in the first place: truthful and ethical journalism.
Emma Axelrod ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying political science and journalism.