Trolling for Social Change? How John Oliver Uses Satire and Parody on Last Week Tonight
Until 2013, John Oliver was one of the correspondents on the satirical news program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In 2014, Oliver started hosting a satirical news show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, often called Last Week Tonight. The half-hour program airs weekly on HBO. Unlike The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight does not have a team of correspondents and does not directly parody the television news show format. Instead, Oliver and the Last Week Tonight team delve deeply into issues that are often overlooked by mainstream media outlets or that require more explanation than mainstream outlets can give, such as net neutrality or the medical debt industry. In a new article published in the NCA journal Critical Studies in Media Communication, Amber Davisson and Mackenzie Donovan argue that Oliver incorporates a style of trolling that often leads to social activism.
Oliver uses trolling tactics to promote social activism. Davisson and Donovan identify four tactics that Oliver uses: raiding, memes, transmedia storytelling, and pranking or irreverent behavior.
When you think of trolling, you might think of an Internet troll, such as someone who leaves antagonistic comments on others’ social media posts. In the article, trolling is defined as “the use of antagonistic behavior to disrupt conversation for the purpose of creating chaos and mischief.” On the Internet, trolls typically irritate someone to provoke a response. For example, a troll might post an offensive or inflammatory comment on a news article that they hope other users will respond to. In contrast to these trolls, Davisson and Donovan argue that Oliver trolls with good intentions on Last Week Tonight. Trolls often use trolling to manipulate the news cycle in perverse ways. For example, in 2016, trolls manipulated the media into covering conspiracy theories. Oliver uses trolling tactics to promote social activism. Davisson and Donovan identify four tactics that Oliver uses: raiding, memes, transmedia storytelling, and pranking or irreverent behavior.
When raiding, trolls “launch a coordinated attack on a person, entity, or website,” according to Davisson and Donovan. Net neutrality means that internet service providers cannot discriminate against content by slowing down access or through other means that would make information inaccessible. In 2014, NPR reported that the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) was considering revising net neutrality rules to allow internet service providers, such as Comcast, to “charge for ‘fast lanes’ to the Internet.” In effect, the proposal would have meant an end to net neutrality, and companies would have been allowed to discriminate against content. In a now-famous 2014 segment, Oliver encouraged viewers to raid the FCC website and make public comments. Viewers made 45,000 comments and sent 300,000 emails. This was a monumental increase in comment traffic compared to the 2,000 that the FCC normally receives. In 2017, the FCC opened public comment on the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which sought to undo Obama-era net neutrality rules. Last Week Tonight viewers were again asked to raid the FCC website and comment on the proposed net neutrality rollback. This time, they made comments through gofccyourself.com, a domain created by the show. While the 2017 raid was not successful in altering the policy, both raids resulted in increased coverage of net neutrality by the news media.
Oliver also uses memes regularly in the show. Generally, memes are just ideas that spread through a culture. Trolls use memes to share ideas online. Memes can range from jokes, like Grumpy Cat, to more serious issues. As with other aspects of the show’s trolling, Oliver uses memes to encourage the public to act. In 2014, Russia launched five geckos into space to observe their sexual behavior in zero gravity. However, the space agency soon lost contact with the pod containing the geckos. Oliver challenged viewers to post on social media using #GoGetThoseGeckos to encourage Russia to rescue the geckos. #GoGetThoseGeckos became a Facebook page, a video game, and a series of memes. The geckos’ pod eventually returned to Earth, but the geckos perished during their journey. Davisson and Donovan argue that the event demonstrates how Oliver uses memes and the power of memes to encourage public action.
Transmedia storytelling refers to using multiple media formats to tell a story. Two transmedia stories told by Last Week Tonight are “Make Donald Drumpf Again” and Marlon Bundo. While the Trump name has been associated with success, Trump’s family name was originally Drumpf. In a 2016 segment, Oliver announced the Drumpfinator, a chrome extension that turns “Donald Trump” into “Donald Drumpf.” Furthermore, the Last Week Tonight store also parodied Donald Trump’s merchandise with “Make Donald Drumpf Again” red baseball caps. While these efforts did not alter the outcome of the election, Last Week Tonight viewers used trolling and transmedia storytelling to engage in electoral politics.
In 2018, Oliver filmed a segment that focused on Mike Pence’s career and the Vice President’s connection to James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. According to Oliver, Pence’s only redeeming quality was a pet bunny, Marlon Bundo. To critique Pence’s stance on LGTBQIA+ issues, Jill Twiss, a Last Week Tonight writer, authored a book on Marlon Bundo in which Marlon fell in love with another male bunny. The book, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, was written to compete with Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President by Charlotte Pence, the vice president’s daughter. Sales of the Last Week Tonight book funded The Trevor Project and AIDS United. According to Davisson and Donovan, the Last Week Tonight book and audiobook were both incredibly successful in the weeks following their release, demonstrating the power of transmedia storytelling.
Oliver also acts as a prankster by abusing complicated sets of rules to go after institutions, like the debt industry, that perpetuate inequality. For example, in 2016, Last Week Tonight investigated the medical debt industry. In the U.S., Americans owe billions of dollars in medical debt. This debt can be bought by companies for cents on the dollar. Those companies then attempt to collect the money owed. Oliver set up the Central Asset Recovery Professionals (CARP) agency and purchased over 9,000 people’s debt almost immediately. Instead of collecting the debt, Oliver forgave it on live television. Davisson and Donovan argue that Oliver acted as a prankster and used the system in place to demonstrate the abuses of the medical debt industry. Oliver’s viewers came away more knowledgeable about medical debt and perhaps more critical of the inequality that the system perpetuates.
Davisson and Donovan argue that Last Week Tonight uses trolling to generate news coverage of little-known issues. Oliver has trolled for social activism by helping viewers engage in the policymaking process, advocating for equality through transmedia storytelling, and giving away billions of dollars on live television.