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In His First Speech in His Own Voice, Sacha Baron Cohen Takes on Big Tech

November 25, 2019, 6:04 PM UTC

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It began with a joke.

Last week, Sacha Baron Cohen accepted the International Leadership Award at the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never Is Now” summit on anti-Semitism and hate.

“Thank you, ADL, for this recognition and your work in fighting racism, hate, and bigotry,” Baron Cohen said. “And to be clear, when I say ‘racism, hate, and bigotry’ I’m not referring to the names of Stephen Miller’s Labradoodles.”

The humor mostly ended there.

It was the first time the actor and comedian, best known for his stereotype-laden characters, has given a speech in his own voice. He called the experience terrifying. 

What he said turned out to be terrifying for the audience as well.

“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,” he said.

Aside from the fact that half his comedy is “absolutely juvenile and the other half completely puerile,” Cohen claimed a life-long higher calling.

“As a teenager in the UK, I marched against the fascist National Front and to abolish Apartheid,” he said. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on the American civil rights movement. “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 said, recalling the time he urged an entire bar in Arizona to sing “Throw the Jew down the well.”

It was an oddly moving set of credentials, a set-up to a brutal punchline. 

To blame for this grim state are “six unelected billionaires” who decide what the world sees: “[Mark] 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.”

“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.’”

What followed was Cohen’s examination of the conspiracy theories that have emboldened white supremacist violence, as well as a serious critique of Facebook’s attempts, superficial to many, to mitigate the damage they’ve done by “giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.”

The speech is well worth your time.

It’s also a chance to peek into the mind of Cohen The Artist, and understand his attempt to examine the world for unmined truths, assemble them into a mirror, and show us who we are.

The images aren’t always pretty. 

One of his characters, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, convinced a random citizen that Antifa planned to sneak hormones into babies’ diapers in order to “make them transgender.” Not only did the subject believe Cohen, he quickly allowed himself to be drawn into a fake undercover operation that would have had a lethal outcome if it had been real. “He pushed the button and thought he had actually killed three human beings,” said Cohen, explaining the prank. “Voltaire was right, ‘those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.'”

Love or loathe his work, Cohen has earned an eerie authority. He’s able to do individually what social media has enabled hate-spewers and conspiracy theorists to do at scale. 

He ended with an optimistic call to action that, in his view, will save the world and his comedy.

Executing on it, I suppose, will be up to us:

“Allow me to leave you with a suggestion for a different aim for society. The ultimate aim of society should be to make sure that people are not targeted, not harassed and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love or how they pray.

If we make that our aim—if we prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses—then maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history, we can save democracy, we can still have a place for free speech and free expression, and, most importantly, my jokes will still work.”

Ellen McGirt

@ellmcgirt

Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

On Point

Another Medium post from Facebook employees paints a dismal picture of inclusion and leadership inside the company On November 7th, anonymous Facebook employees posted a powerful essay on Medium revealing a culture rife with racism and discrimination against non-white, non-majority culture employees inside the company. In a new and compelling follow-up, the authors describe the fallout to the piece. Some leaders like HR chief Lori Goler, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said all the right things. Managers stepped up and checked in. Other employees of color poured onto the internal discussion boards to share their stories. “We were seen. We were heard. And on Monday, November 11, we felt things were changing.” But that hope was short-lived.
Medium

Students from Harvard and Yale unite in protest at the Harvard-Yale football game For students, alums, and observers of the annual gridiron meeting of archrivals, it was a notable alliance. Students and alumni of both schools occupied the playing field at the Yale Bowl at halftime to demand their respective colleges to pay attention to several issues: chiefly among them climate change, Puerto Rican debt relief, and the plight of the Uighurs in China. Some 150 protesters dispersed after about an hour; about 42 people who lingered were arrested and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Among them was actor Sam Waterston, Yale ’62.
AP

AMC responds to complaints that employees racially profiled a woman during a screening of “Harriet” Sandra Gordon, 65, was an hour into a sold-out performance of the film “Harriet,” when an employee of the Metarie, La. theater asked to see her ticket stub. A patron insisted she was in his seat. She was not, and quickly proved it. Two more employees subsequently challenged her — one even paused the film, annoying everyone in the theater. Gordon and her friends from a charitable group called the 504 Queens all got refunds, but decided more justice was necessary. They contacted a local civil rights lawyer named Alison McCrary, who was a dear friend (and a Catholic nun). On the 504's list of demands: Fire the three employees, offer “anti-racism and anti-oppression training” for AMC workers, and free showings of “Harriet” for students in Metairie. They got quite a bit more — including, unfortunately, online threats when the media picked up the saga. “I am taking the high road, but it is a bit much,” says Gordon.
New York Times

A new class action lawsuit decries a “sexually hostile work environment” at McDonald’s Complaints from McDonald’s workers have been increasing over the past few years; last fall, hundreds of workers across several states walked out to strike against what appeared to be a major sexual harassment problem. The Cut has interviewed four women about their experience, all of whom have either participated in the class action suit or filed a complaint with the EEOC. The stories are brutal. In every case, the women were either young or uniquely vulnerable. After her general manager failed to intervene, Kim Lawson cut her own hours to avoid her harasser. “I was actually homeless at the time, so I was in a really, really bad place,” she ways. “I felt like nobody cared. I felt alone.”
The Cut

On Background

The first person of color to ever play professional basketball has died Wataru "Wat" Misaka died last week at age 95 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Utah native was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947 after a distinguished college career playing for the University of Utah, where he helped lead the team to two national championships. He experienced extraordinary discrimination as a second-generation American in Utah and was largely shunned by the white community, but he excelled at sports. Misaka was drafted into the army in 1944, where he worked as an interpreter in East Asia and was often introduced as “Hawaiian” to be shielded from post-Pearl Harbor animosity. The five-foot-seven-inch point guard was cut after only three games, which Misaka attributed to an overabundance of guards, not racial discrimination. He passed on a chance to play with the Harlem Globetrotters and went on to a career in engineering. He seemed like an extraordinary man and I’m sorry he’s not a household name.                                                                         
NBC

Ways to affirm your success in a predominantly white world New research suggests that self-affirmation can be a powerful tool in mitigating the effects of microaggressions and negative stereotyping. “When people believe in their ability to grow, they make decisions that reflect this conviction, such as investing in their potential, focusing on their unique strengths, and discovering new paths to success and fulfillment that align with their core values and leadership goals,” the researchers say. They include a list of affirmations that they found reflected the unique experience of African American leaders. Here are a few examples. Enjoy.  

  • I build a robust sense of self that strengthens me.
  • Sometimes, even when I am in a position of authority, my authority is challenged or contested. I choose to not let this make me feel less secure in my leadership. I learn from feedback and others’ perceptions, but I do not let them limit my leadership potential.
  • My power and influence give me the opportunity to design and implement more inclusive leadership practices, regardless of my job title or formal responsibilities. I use this opportunity to clear the pathway to leadership for others.

Harvard Business Review

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

Quote

"People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences. I understand the concerns about how tech platforms have centralized power, but I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands. It’s part of this amazing expansion of voice through law, culture and technology."

Mark Zuckerberg

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