Sacha Baron Cohen’s criticism of Facebook is his funniest joke

Yes, there is hate speech on social media, but is that all there is to it?

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Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California on September 22, 2019 [Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]
Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California on September 22, 2019 [Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]

In late November, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen gave a talk at the Anti-Defamation League about hate speech and anti-Semitism on social media. He called Big Tech and social media “the greatest propaganda machine in history,” adding: “Just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.”

Shortly after, Facebook rejected the accusation, releasing a statement saying that hate speech is banned on the platform.

Baron Cohen’s speech has received much attention and widespread support, particularly in mainstream media which echoed and disseminated his observations.

The charge of being “the greatest propaganda machine in history” is, of course, loaded and draws our attention to other propaganda machines that existed long before Facebook and which might have a claim to that dubious distinction. Among them are the American war machine and the Israeli hasbara, neither of which Baron Cohen seems to reject. 

State propaganda and monopoly of information

There is some element of truth to what Baron Cohen says. There are people on the racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and white supremacist lunatic fringe that take advantage of social media to propagate hate.

But is that all there is to Facebook?

Has it, perhaps inadvertently, also provided a venue for those at the mercy of state and corporate propaganda to talk back at it, reasserting alternative narratives to those presented by, let’s say, the BBC and the New York Times?

I would daresay that those media organisations are, if not the greatest, then certainly major propaganda machines supporting a settler colony that the UK and US have been chiefly responsible for creating and sustaining. They have had that monopoly for decades – deciding and determining the terms of debate on Israel’s colonisation of Palestine.

Facebook and other social media platforms have, all their troubling dimensions notwithstanding, offered sites of resistance to their hegemony.

For those of us old enough to remember the mode of media coverage prior to the emergence of the internet, Baron Cohen’s observations actually sound quite ludicrous.

I remember vividly when the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 broke out. Then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt despair at being at the mercy of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any one of the three major US networks (ABC, CBS or NBC) – or particularly BBC radio – to tell me what was happening in Iran.

I remember driving to a Radio Shack shop in the King of Prussia suburb of Philadelphia to buy a short-wave device in order to listen to Tehran Radio and find out what was happening in my homeland. This is not to say that Tehran Radio told the truth and the New York Times spread lies. It just means we all needed more than one dominant and hegemonic source of news to make up our own minds.

Books have been written on how the New York Times and other major corporate media have helped state propaganda machineries. Consider Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media or Richard Falk and Howard Friel’s 2007 book The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy. They both document how monopoly over information, whether state or corporate, has helped justify to the public enormous atrocities and kept it purposefully ignorant of the truth.

Breaking the monopoly

Perhaps the case of the Palestinian national liberation struggles of the last 70 years is the most potent example of how the internet and social media has enabled Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause to counter the sustained course of Israeli propaganda in order to put the history of their dispossession and the robbery of their homeland on the global stage.

The internet started to break the powerful monopoly on how Palestine was portrayed in the 1990s. At first, it gave dissenting voices access to a wider audience.

I remember how one day, shortly after he had started his column for the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly in 1993, my colleague and eminent literary theorist Edward Said came to me on campus at Columbia University and declared, “Al-Ahram has liberated me!”

Forget about the New York Times, the chief organ of liberal Zionism, even the so-called progressive outlets like The Nation would not publish his critical assessments of Israeli thievery pre- and post-Oslo Accords.

What was the print circulation of Al-Ahram Weekly? Rather small. But its website gave people around the globe access to Said’s emancipatory writings.

Baron Cohen would most probably not like that. Said’s voice was not racist or anti-Semitic. It was and remains liberating and empowering for the dispossessed around the world.

Then social media not only opened up spaces for wider discussion on the Palestinian cause, connecting the diaspora and foreign supporters to Palestinians in Palestine, but also enabled grassroots organising and public documentation of Israeli violations and crimes.

Take the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Founded in 2005, a year after Facebook started and a year before Twitter was launched, it has managed to grow exponentially thanks to social media, which has helped spread its message and boost the effectiveness of its campaigns. It can rally support for boycott action across the world through a network of organisations and volunteers maintained on social media platforms.

The campaign has managed to make enough noise on social media and otherwise to get major artists to cancel events in Israel, including Snoop Dogg, Shakira, Laurin Hill and many others. In 2017, in response to an online BDS letter, New Zealand artist Lorde tweeted: “Noted! Been speaking w many people about this and considering all options. Thank u for educating me I am learning all the time too” before cancelling her concert in Tel Aviv.

The success of the BDS campaign has much to do with the increasing access to information about Israeli crimes on the internet, and especially on social media. Over the past decade, Palestinians and supporters of their cause have increasingly been able not only to document daily Israeli oppression but to post it online for the world to see.

Whether it is shocking images of children killed by Israeli fire in Gaza, videos of Israeli snipers shooting an unarmed Palestinian and celebrating it, or footage of Israeli soldiers carrying out an extrajudicial killing – Palestinians can broadcast to the world Israeli violence in real-time on social media.

If it were up to the New York Times and BBC, it is unlikely any of these crimes would be properly reported. It is only because Palestinian voices have been empowered and amplified online that we hear in detail about what is happening in Palestinian lands.

Who is to throw the first stone?

I have no love lost for Big Tech. To me, they are big corporations and as such, are as immoral and hazardous as every other big corporation. And there is no doubt of the enormity of the horror of white supremacy and its proponents’ use of these platforms to promote hatred.

But social media and the interconnectedness it has encouraged also mean we are not at the mercy of any state or corporate media to decide what is “fit to print”.

The question is not whether Facebook is or is not vulnerable to abuse by racist and xenophobic groups. Of course it is. But who is the person levelling these charges and where is the podium from which he launches this attack.

Baron Cohen makes money out of perpetuating the worst stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims in his films and shows. And the ADL, where he gave the speech, is itself known for its racist activism

The cause of Zionism that Baron Cohen and the ADL fully embrace has totally discredited the charge of anti-Semitism and weaponised it against those who dare criticise the horrors of the settler colony against Palestinians.

But none of that in and of itself discredits what he says. Even a broken clock is accurate twice a day.

There is rampant racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc and social media can be a cesspool for entertaining such nefarious ideas. But we need to be even and identical in our criticism of all of these terrorising forms of racism in one breath. We cannot denounce just one while trading in the others.

The internet is a blessing and it is a curse. But it has made the world a more level playing ground to oppose and end abuse of power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

Petition: Stop the cuts to Food Stamps

The Trump administration recently announced changes to SNAP that will cause hundreds of thousands of people to lose access to their “food stamp” benefits. Will you sign the petition to urge Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to stop these attacks on families who depend on SNAP?

USDA’s newly proposed rules for SNAP will cut food stamp benefits for hundreds of thousands of hungry people. We demand that you stop these proposed changes before they take effect on April 1, 2020.

According to Feeding America, “SNAP provides families with their basic nutritional needs to get them through temporary hard times. It helps people get back on their feet and on the road to a better life.”

But the Trump administration has been working for the last three years to undermine SNAP as part of their agenda to limit access to public assistance programs.

This newly announced attack on SNAP is especially outrageous, because Congress rejected these proposed changes to the program during the Farm Bill debate last year. The House rejected them in a bipartisan vote of 330-83, and the Senate voted down a similar amendment 68-30.

But now, Sonny Perdue, Trump’s secretary of agriculture, is moving forward with these changes through an undemocratic “executive order” that targets very poor people struggling to work—many of whom are homeless, living in small towns and rural communities with little or no access to employment, or have health conditions that prevent them from working.

Click here to add your name to this petition, and then pass it along to your friends.

Thank you.

—Matthew Hildreth, RuralOrganizing.org

Petition: Tell Congress to Ban surprise medical bills.

It’s bad enough that Americans have to pause in the midst of medical emergencies to ask if insurance companies will cover the cost of treatment. But it’s even worse that visits to “in-network” providers can still result in hundreds or thousands of dollars in surprise medical bills.1

Today, one in five emergency room visits — and 70 percent of critical air ambulance transports — result in surprise medical bills. When healthcare providers and insurance companies can’t agree on how much treatment costs, they turn around and bill patients for the difference.2

Insurance companies’ greed has broken our healthcare system in more ways than we can count. But right now, we have a chance to take real, bipartisan action to end surprise medical billing, and we can’t let it go to waste.

One surprise medical bill can tip someone into bankruptcy, and they are growing more and more common. Maybe the insurance company pads its profits by paying the hospital or ambulance less than the treatment costs. Or providers demand higher and higher fees that the insurance company won’t pay. Or the insurer reimburses the hospital, but not the doctor who provided treatment. Regardless, the story ends the same: patients end up stuck paying for the balance, with no warning and through no fault of their own.3

The good news is that there is new momentum behind legislation that would ban this “balance billing,” based on three commonsense principles:4

  • Ban surprise balance billing and fully protect patients with no exceptions, especially in emergency situations where people can’t make sure they will see an in-network provider
  • Contain costs by establishing a reasonable payment level between providers and insurers based on actual prices, not corporate greed
  • Ensure comprehensive protection nationwide so federal law reinforces the strongest state laws and helps people in states with no protections


A bipartisan consensus in Congress is emerging against surprise medical bills but insurers and emergency medical providers are fighting back to preserve their profits.5 It’s up to us to fight for the strongest possible legislation with no loopholes or handouts.

Sign CREDO’s petition to Congress: Ban surprise medical bills.

SIGN THE PETITION
Thank you for speaking out,

Heidi Hess, Co-Director
CREDO Action from Working Assets

Sweden Provides Free Higher Education, Universal Healthcare, Free Daycare — Why Can’t the U.S.?

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Medicare for All and tuition-free universities have been at the core of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns, creating a stark division between progressive candidates and their centrist counterparts. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed to make Medicare for All and public universities cost-free by taxing massive corporations and the super wealthy, and earlier this year, Sanders introduced legislation that would cancel student loan debt. His plan would be paid for with a new tax on Wall Street, he says. It would also make public universities and community colleges free — a key pillar of Sanders’s 2020 education platform. These proposals are not radical ideas in Sweden, a country that has built one of the world’s most extensive social welfare systems. In Sweden, healthcare costs are largely subsided by the state. Daycare and preschool programs are mostly free. College and university are free. Public transportation is subsidized for many users. To explain how Sweden does it, we speak with Mikael Törnwall, Swedish author and journalist focusing on economic issues at Svenska Dagbladet, a Stockholm daily newspaper. His most recent book is titled “Who Should Pay for Welfare?”

Apple changes Crimea map to meet Russian demands

Apple iPhoneImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Apple has complied with Russian demands to show the annexed Crimean peninsula as part of Russian territory on its apps.

Russian forces annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, drawing international condemnation.

The region, which has a Russian-speaking majority, is now shown as Russian territory on Apple Maps and its Weather app, when viewed from Russia.

But the apps do not show it as part of any country when viewed elsewhere.

Apple Weather app lists Crimea as part of RussiaImage copyrightAPPLE WEATHER
Image captionThe Apple Weather app now lists Crimea as part of Russia
Apple Map showing CrimeaImage copyrightAPPLE MAPS
Image captionApple Maps does not show a border between Crimea and Russia

The State Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower house, said in a statement: “Crimea and Sevastopol now appear on Apple devices as Russian territory.”

Russia treats the naval port city of Sevastopol as a separate region.

The BBC tested several iPhones in Moscow and it appears the change affects devices set up to use the Russian edition of Apple’s App Store.

Apple had been in talks with Russia for several months over what the State Duma described as “inaccuracy” in the way Crimea was labelled.

The tech giant originally suggested it could show Crimea as undefined territory – part of neither Russia nor Ukraine.

But Vasily Piskaryov, chairman of the Duma security and anti-corruption committee, said Apple had complied with the Russian constitution.

He said representatives of the company were reminded that labelling Crimea as part of Ukrainian territory was a criminal offence under Russian law, according to Interfax news agency.

“There is no going back,” Mr Piskaryov said. “Today, with Apple, the situation is closed – we have received everything we wanted.”

He said Russia was always open to “dialogue and constructive co-operation with foreign companies”.

Apple has not yet commented on the decision.

Google, which also produces a popular Maps app, does not show Crimea as belonging to either Russia or Ukraine on its maps.

However, it uses the Russian spelling of Crimean place names, rather than the Ukrainian spelling, on its maps in Russia.

Most of the international community, including the EU and the US, does not recognise the annexation of Crimea to Russia.

The loss of Crimea is a deep wound for Ukrainians. Shortly after the peninsula was annexed in early 2014, a separate conflict broke out in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions when separatists moved against the Ukrainian state.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of sending its troops to the region and arming the separatists.

Moscow denies this but says that Russian volunteers are helping the rebels. More than 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The BBC does not show Crimea as part of Russia on its maps, but shows a dotted line to mark disputed territory.

Sasha Baron Cohen: Facebook would have let Hitler buy anti-Semitic ads

Sacha Baron Cohen in Los Angeles, California, on September 22, 2019

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has said if Facebook had existed in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler a platform for his anti-Semitic beliefs.

The Ali G star singled out the social media company in a speech in New York.

He also criticised Google, Twitter and YouTube for pushing “absurdities to billions of people”.

Social media giants and internet companies are under growing pressure to curb the spread of misinformation around political campaigns.

Twitter announced in late October that it would ban all political advertising globally from 22 November.

Earlier this week Google said it would not allow political advertisers to target voters using “microtargeting” based on browsing data or other factors.

Analysts say Facebook has come under increasing pressure to follow suit.

Addressing the Anti-Defamation League’s Never is Now summit, Baron Cohen took aim at Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg who in October defended his company’s position not to ban political adverts that contain falsehoods.

“If you pay them, Facebook will run any ‘political’ ad you want, even if it’s a lie. And they’ll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect,” he said.

“Under this twisted logic, 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 said it was time “for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies”. He also questioned Mr Zuckerberg’s characterisation of Facebook as a bastion of “free expression”.

“I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and paedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims,” he added.

Facebook has not commented on the remarks.

Earlier this month, an international group of lawmakers called for targeted political adverts on social media to be suspended until they are properly regulated.

The International Committee on Disinformation and Fake News was told that the business model adopted by social networks made “manipulation profitable”.

A BBC investigation into political ads for next month’s UK election suggested they were being targeted towards key constituencies and certain age groups.

Leaked Cables Show Depth of Iranian Influence in Iraq After U.S. Invasion “Shattered” the Country

Image Credit: The Intercept

An unprecedented leak of secret intelligence reports from inside the Iranian government has shed new light on how Iran has taken control of much of the Iraqi government in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. The documents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security were leaked to The Intercept, which then partnered with The New York Times on reporting the story. The leak includes 700 pages of intelligence documents from 2014 to 2015. The documents reveal that a number of Iraqis who once worked with the CIA went on to work with Iranian intelligence.