Fergus Finlay: Cohen’s right — Facebook and Twitter are making life ‘Misérable’

All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history, writes Fergus Finlay

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen made a powerful speech about the internet and Facebook in particular. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen made a powerful speech about the internet and Facebook in particular. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty

SACHA Baron Cohen has it right. Now there’s a sentence I thought I’d never write. He’s a comedian, and not everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, I don’t get him at all. I’ve never found him funny, and as a life-long fan of Les Misérables, I thought they almost spoiled the movie version entirely by casting him as Threnardier, the grasping inn-keeper.

But I’ve just finished reading a speech he gave about the internet, and Facebook in particular. And it’s powerful.

He was speaking to the Anti-Defamation League, an organisation created in the US to fight antisemitism. Among other things, he said this:

“Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. … Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.

“What do all these dangerous trends have in common? … All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.”

Imagine, he went on to say, what Goebbels could have done if he’d had Facebook at his disposal.

He talked in pretty apocalyptic terms about what’s to come in the short-term future. British voters are about to vote in an election while anti-immigrant hatred is being spread online. Americans will vote for a president while trolls and bots perpetuate disgusting lies on the internet.

Could this really, he asked, be what the creators of the worldwide web had in mind – this “sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threatens democracy and our planet”?

I’m utterly conflicted about social media. I love it, and I’m afraid of it. I value its power to change the world for the better, and I fear its capacity to change the world for the worse. I believe passionately in free speech, and I want to eliminate hate speech and abusive speech. I don’t have a huge personal issue with privacy, but I get how people are terrified of their data being used to manipulate them.

And I’ve found recently that the dilemma is getting worse. I post this column on Facebook and Twitter every Tuesday, and I usually enjoy the conversations that ensue. In fact I’m often amazed at the diversions they take — people get involved in arguments of their own all the time and forget the column that sparked the discussion in the first place. But it’s great, nevertheless, that several hundred people get involved every week.

Except when the abuse starts. Now, I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I don’t any more get as much abuse as I used to. Generally speaking, if you don’t let it bother you it dies away.

But then you look at other stuff online, and you realise it doesn’t even have to be intelligent to be dangerous. Take Gemma O’Doherty, for example. Most of the stuff she puts online is incredibly stupid and fatuous. Recently she brought her camera into a halal butcher shop and pretended to be shocked it wasn’t selling pork. It’s genuinely daft. There must be 40,000 places in Ireland where you can buy pork sausages, but you’d have to travel a long way to buy halal meat.

That’s not the point, of course. She is one of the people who believes in this stuff about the great replacement of the Irish by the forces of Islam, or at least she claims to. And if you spend even five minutes looking at her twitter page, you can see the hatred she inspires in her followers.

Gemma O’Doherty
Gemma O’Doherty

At least O’Doherty uses her own name, and at least she runs for election. She will, hopefully, get her answer on polling day.

A huge number of her adherents hide behind pseudonyms. It’s very often those with pseudonyms who do the most damage. The bullies and the cowards who target people often only because they’re different or vulnerable. The ones who are afraid to reveal their own names, but aren’t afraid to say the cruellest things imaginable about their targets.

Baron Cohen talks about the political implications of an internet that has become a wild west, where it is possible to spread conspiracy theories and hate without any regard for truth. And of course that effect is magnified in an era where personal data can be harvested and manipulated.

And side by side with that there are just as many reasons to be concerned about the damage that can be done at a much more intimate and personal level. Anyone who has had any experience of the hurt caused by online bullying knows only too well how the internet can be used to attack and break down human resilience.

And yet if anyone suggests regulating the internet to remove these abuses, you’re told that first of all it’s impossible, and secondly, that you’re a threat to free speech.

Not only is it not impossible to regulate the internet, it’s actually much easier than we want to admit. We have access to the internet because internet service providers carry it. The internet service providers are the companies that Facebook and Twitter can’t live without. If Vodafone, for example, decided it didn’t want to carry Facebook, then no Vodafone customer would have access to Facebook.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg

OF COURSE it would be entirely unfair to demand of any one internet service provider that they should act unilaterally against a giant like Facebook. But suppose all the internet service providers adopted a couple of new rules — or were obliged to by law?

Like for example, the banning of anonymous accounts? Have all the free speech you like. Say whatever pops into your head. But only after you have attached your own properly authenticated name to it.

Or the banning of paid material (like ads) that had not been independently fact-checked? The owner of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg thinks he has no responsibility for truth in the ads Facebook carries. But we could actually require our internet service providers to insist on truthful advertising by law.

And we could (I suspect pretty easily) make a European-wide agreement that forced all of the internet service providers in Europe to remove material that didn’t comply with pretty basic standards of truth and decency.

They can put what they like on their platforms now, and disavow any responsibility. But that material can only reach our homes and mobile phones if internet service providers carry it. And we can control that if we choose.

You can see it if you like as a choice between unfettered free speech on the one hand, or an end to hate and lies and manipulation on the other. Either way, we do have the power if we choose to make Mark Zuckerberg sit up and take notice. I wonder why we’re so afraid to use it?

All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history

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