Press Room

Trolling for Social Change? How John Oliver Uses Satire and Parody on Last Week Tonight

August 22, 2019
New Research
Entertainment, Mass Media, Technology

In 2014, John Oliver started hosting a satirical news show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, often called Last Week Tonight. 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.

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 contrast to these trolls, Davisson and Donovan argue that Oliver trolls to promote social activism on Last Week Tonight. 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. In a now-famous 2014 segment, Oliver encouraged viewers raid the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) website and make public comments on a policy that would have allowed internet service providers, such as Comcast, to “charge for ‘fast lanes’ to the Internet.” Viewers overwhelmed the FCC website with thousands of comments and emails. 

Oliver also uses memes regularly in the show. Generally, memes are just ideas that spread through a culture. In 2014, Oliver challenged viewers to post on social media using #GoGetThoseGeckos to encourage Russia to rescue geckos that had been launched into space as part of a science experiment.

Transmedia storytelling refers to using multiple media formats to tell a story. In 2018, Oliver filmed a segment that focused on Mike Pence’s career. To critique Pence’s stance on LGTBQIA+ issues, Jill Twiss wrote Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a book in which Pence’s pet bunny, Marlon Bundo, fell in love with another male bunny. 

Oliver also acts as a prankster by abusing complicated sets of rules to go after institutions, such as the debt industry, that perpetuate inequality. In 2016, Last Week Tonight investigated the medical debt industry. As part of the segment, Oliver set up a collection agency, bought debt, and forgave that debt live on television. 

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.


Read the full article online here

To arrange an interview with the study authors, contact Grace Hébert at or 202-534-1104.

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