New media technologies are advancing every year, as citizens, we do our best to adapt and evolve with each of these changes. Over the past decade, society has begun to turn their backs on traditional news sources, and since the rise of social media, it has become a new source for information. People believe this to be advantageous for many reasons, it decentralizes [some] power and influence from large media corporations, gives diversity of voices, creates democracy and provides cheap and accessible flows of information to the public. Although these factors seem constructive, social media also allows for anyone to create content. This means that not all information disseminated for others to consume is factually correct or presented in a fair and just way. In this essay, I will use the case study of John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight to demonstrate that social media can still be appropriate in disseminating factual information that challenges the dominant discourse and positively affects the public. As stated in Time Magazine in 2016, John Oliver gained himself the expression “the John Oliver Effect” in response to the show having a real-life effect on his audiences. I will use examples of content from his previous episodes to further explain and justify my argument.
John Oliver is a British-American Comedian who broadcasts a program each week that addresses political issues that are not typically discussed in the mainstream media. Last Week Tonight is an original HBO broadcast that can be viewed through an online subscription to their service, with YouTube releasing some of his ‘web exclusive’ content. He takes touchy politicized issues that are relevant and applies a comedic twist. This has gained him a large following on YouTube, with 5.8 million subscribers and anywhere from 4-33 million views per video. YouTube itself, is a fairly new social media platform owned by Google. YouTube gets approximately 30 million visitors daily and over 4 billion videos being watched (Fan & Bifet, 2013). This platform endorses consumption and interaction through it’s wide audience. To find out more about YouTube stats, click here. The participatory culture and communities created through YouTube have been one of its leading factors of success. Last Week Tonight is widely popular and is used as an academic media source in many institutions including universities such as my own.
A video released on Net Neutrality: Last Week Tonight around 9 months ago, gained traction in the political community. Oliver addressed issues with the new FCC bill for net neutrality in the US, he shed a satirical light on issues he deemed “extremely complicated and boring” for the public. He did a great job at explaining this heavy issue lightheartedly; Such a great job, that he encouraged his US audience to do something about this major issue. Oliver encouraged his audience to voice their opinions and post public comments to the FCC’s website opposing the net neutrality bill. Since his episode, there was a spike of around 75,000 additional comments onto the website in the next following days (Williams & Shelton, 2014). This episode and call-to-action is exemplary in showing how social media can induce democracy and participation in citizens.
Although this increase in comments created more awareness around the subject, this ultimately did not change the results. Social media has many million contributors and users each day, it creates opportunities for audiences to have “decentralized, distributed, direct control over when, what, why and with whom they exchange information” (Crick, 2016, p. 152). This concept can also be referred to as an [in]voluntary echo-chamber. These opportunities can either numb and distract citizens who choose to find purely pleasurable information or empower and democratize, like these platforms inherently encourage. It is refreshing in today’s society, we find sources that amuse and inform simultaneously, to reinforce our voices in politics.
Most of the content that Oliver provides on Last Week Tonight challenges the dominant discourse around politicized subjects in the mainstream media, that is one of the reasons why I believe that it is so popular. Oliver includes many anecdotes that break formal boundaries between himself and the audience. An episode on the series, Opioids: Last Week Tonight is a great example of Oliver challenging the dominant discourse with his topic choices. Opioids and prescribed drugs specifically are not typically covered in the mainstream media, making it a controversial topic. This is extremely relevant today because of Vancouver’s public health crisis announced last April of 2016 (Anderson, K, 2013). He talks a little about the history of how opioids originally became intertwined with the medical institutions and how a select few pharmaceutical companies falsified data to create this terrible epidemic we have arrived at today (Soelburg et al, 2017). This is important because it creates awareness and discourse around subjects that are normally unidentified in the mainstream media. I resonate with this subject because of the crisis we are having in Vancouver, spreading across the world. To learn more about the health crisis, click here.
Overall social media has many distinguishing aspects that can be used to distract the public – in Trumps case of tweeting – or persuade individuals to believe political standpoints or other alternates that are encouraged through these online platforms. We reviewed social media, specifically YouTube as a space that be seen as an echo-chamber of information, if one chooses it to be that way. John Oliver uses satire to engage and inform the public about controversial and occasionally “complex” topics. I used examples of two episodes from his series Last Week Tonight to demonstrate the participatory influence he has created. The first gives an insight into his reach to the public, and how his influence can encourage democracy within complex political issues. Secondly, his overview on the opioid crisis, although is one of his older pieces, touches upon issues that are relevant in my hometown, and can resonate with many. The root causes he talks about in the segment are not traditionally mentioned in the mainstream media for a plethora of reasons. His suggestions and information he disseminates through his channel does a good job at positively affecting his audience and reinforcing a collective opposition of power.
Anderson, K. (2016). Illicit drug overdose deaths, January 1, 2007 – Mar. 31, 2016 (Canada, BC Gov News). Burnaby, B.C.: Office of the Chief Coroner. Retrieved from https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2016HLTH0026-000568.
Crick, M. (2016). YouTube: Surveillance, Power, Audience, and Monetizing the Message. In Power, Surveillance, and Culture in YouTube’s Digital Sphere (Advances in Social Networking and Online Communities, pp. 151-175). William Paterson University.
Fan, W., & Bifet, A. (2013). Mining big data: Current status and forecast to the future. ACM SIGKDD Explorations Newsletter,14(2), 1-5.
Soelberg, C., Brown, R., Du Vivier, D., Meyer, J., & Ramachandran, B. (2017). The US Opioid Crisis: Current Federal and State Legal Issues. Anesthesia and Analgesia, 125(5), 1675-1681.
Williams, A. T., & Shelton, M. (2014). What drove spike in public comments on net neutrality? Likely, a comedian. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/05/what-drove-spike-in-public-comments-on-net-neutrality-likely-a-comedian/#