Sacha Baron Cohen has written an op-ed for Time magazine about how we must save democracy from conspiracies. He rightly places blame at the feet of Donald Trump (“the world’s greatest superspreader of coronavirus conspiracies”) and Facebook (“the greatest propaganda machine in history”):
First, trailing in the polls, Trump clearly believes that his only hope for political survival is to spin an alternate universe: Beijing deliberately spread the “Chinese virus,” we’re told, “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” and the election is “rigged” unless states “get rid of” mail-in ballots. It’s as if we’re in the final days of the Age of Reason—the Enlightenment-induced commitment to evidence, science and objective fact. “Truth isn’t truth,” the President’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani has said, and facts are “in the eye of the beholder.” We are told, without any sense of Orwellian irony, to deny the very existence of our external reality.
Second, the Demagogue in Chief has a willing accomplice in Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook—a megaphone that history’s worst autocrats could only dream of. Its algorithm deliberately amplifies content that generates more engagement—and as one unnamed Facebook executive recently told Politico, “Right-wing populism is always more engaging” because it triggers “anger, fear” and “an incredibly strong, primitive emotion.” Not surprisingly, most days the top 10 Facebook posts are overwhelmingly from right-wing pundits and outlets.
Facebook largely refuses to fact-check political ads and posts—which it then microtargets to voters. And Facebook still hasn’t taken down Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Astonishingly, Facebook continues to give a platform to white supremacists and Holocaust deniers. It’s as if the satirist Jonathan Swift foresaw the awful power of social media when he said, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”
Third, all these lies couldn’t come at a worse time. Studies show that people are especially susceptible to conspiracies in periods of great uncertainty when they feel a loss of control over their lives and want answers to make sense of the world. Over the years, I’ve filmed people, who otherwise seemed to be good and decent, repeating lethal conspiracies—regurgitating the diet of lies that they have been fed hourly on social media.