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Sacha Baron Cohen slams Zuckerberg and calls for a 'rethink' of social media

Cohen says Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter "amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history."

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Actor Sacha Baron Cohen, known for his portrayal of fictional characters such as Borat, has joined a growing list of Facebook's critics. 

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Comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen on Thursday took aim at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's remarks about free expression, calling some of his arguments "simply absurd."

During an October speech at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg defended the social network's controversial decision not to send speech from politicians to third-party fact-checkers. The social network's policy, which allows politicians to lie in ads, has sparked criticism including disapproval from Hollywood luminaries such as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Cohen's remarks underscore the growing pushback against the social media giant. 

"This is not about limiting anyone's free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet," said Cohen during his keynote speech Thursday at the Anti-Defamation League's Never Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate. "Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach."

Cohen was the recipient of the ADL's International Leadership Award.

During the speech, Cohen also called out YouTubeGoogle and Twitter, as well as Facebook, alleging the companies facilitate hate and violence. Together, he said, they amounted to the "greatest propaganda machine in history." These companies have helped fuel conspiracy theories including that "Jews are somehow dangerous," he said. Conspiracies can lead to real-world violence such as election interference and a genocide in Myanmar, Cohen said. 

"I believe it's time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies," he said. 

A Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement that Cohen "misrepresented" the company's policies, noting that it has rules against hate speech.

"We ban people who advocate for violence and we remove anyone who praises or supports it," she said. Nobody – including politicians – can advocate or advertise hate, violence or mass murder on Facebook." 

Comparing Zuckerberg to Roman dictator Julius Caesar, Cohen urged the companies to hire enough moderators to police misinformation that flows through their services. Facebook, he said, should fact-check political ads before running them and stop microtargeting. Twitter could create an algorithm to remove hate speech from white supremacists.   

"These are the richest companies in the world, and they have the best engineers in the world," Cohen said. "They could fix these problems if they wanted to." 

Originally published Nov. 21
Update, Nov. 22: Adds statement from Facebook.