Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Back in November 2019, actor-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen called out the major social media platforms, accusing them of fomenting hate, inspiring conspiracy theories and spreading lies. As he saw it, companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had completely sold out, all in order to sell more ads and make more money. In fact, as Cohen pointed out, “They would have let Hitler buy ads.” Together, these platforms have become the “greatest propaganda machine in history,” letting anyone – from conspiracy theorists holed up in their basements to fringe demagogues on the Left and Right – to spread their misinformation, disinformation and outright lies on a global basis.
Those are some pretty strong words – and particularly noteworthy, considering that they are coming from someone best known for his juvenile pranks and his portrayal of absurdist characters like Borat. If Cohen has given up on the big social media platforms, maybe it’s time for us all to listen and pay attention. After all, Facebook has been promising for years to clean up its act, but to little effect. And YouTube, for all its recent work scrubbing the platform of offending voices, seems to have gone too far in the direction of outright censorship. There needs to be some sort of middle ground.
Social media and the automobile analogy
The big question, really, is how to think about the big social media platforms. Are they publishers, along the lines of traditional media companies? Are they communication platforms, along the lines of a telephone company? Or are they something else? Cohen here offers a useful insight – he compares them to automobile manufacturers. In the same way that automakers must stand behind any car they make – including painful and expensive recalls anytime there is a known defect – social media companies should also think of themselves as customer-centric manufacturers. They might be manufacturing an intangible product – information or entertainment – but it is a “product” nonetheless. And, as Cohen points out sharply to the top social media companies, “Your product is defective.”
As Cohen sees it, the big social media companies should be obliged to fix their products, even if it entails great expense, just like any other retail manufacturer. Thus, if they are spreading “fake news,” they should be obliged to spread “real news” instead. And, if they are spreading “lies,” then they should be obliged to spread “truth” instead. The key here is to think about posts, tweets and video clips as “products” that are potentially damaged, faulty or otherwise unfit for online consumption by customers.
Is it still possible to fix social media?
Of course, on the surface, this sounds remarkably logical and sensible. This is what regulators, politicians and industry insiders have been insisting upon for years. But how well has this “self-regulation” approach really worked? If anything, it seems like the big social media companies are amplifying more misinformation, disinformation and lies than ever before. Maybe it’s just a particularly divisive time in this nation’s history, but it seems like every bit of content on these platforms is designed to get people riled up, triggered, and activated. All in the name of “engagement,” of course.
Ultimately, getting the big social media companies to make any meaningful changes might require breaking them up into much smaller pieces. Right now, they are too powerful, too wealthy and too ubiquitous to think that they will make any meaningful changes on their own. And, as Cohen points out, this has a very negative impact on society. Quoting the French philosopher Voltaire, Cohen points out that people who are allowed to believe absurdities will be inspired to commit atrocities. Before things get much more explosive in Western society and more cities begin to burn, then, maybe it’s time to cut down on all the absurdities currently floating out there in the ether.