Comedian John Oliver has made a career by addressing controversial issues head on yet in a light-hearted way. At the same time has never shied away from taking a more progressive or left-leaning stance on those issues, and that was evident during his HBO series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver when on Sunday he spoke out on two hot button issues.
The first of those was the still ongoing conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians, where the fighting in Gaza has resulted in the deaths of more than 200 Palestinians including dozens of women and children. During his Sunday evening monologue he suggested “one side is suffering much more,” and went to even proclaim Israel had committed “war crimes.”
By Monday there were more than 34,000 tweets in response to the monolog, and the vast majority of users seemed to rally around what Oliver said. #IsraelStopPlayingVictim and #FreePalestine were among the hashtags used in a number of those tweets.
Additionally, the full episode was uploaded to YouTube and had already been seen nearly 75,000 times by Monday afternoon. Many of the comments echoed the sentiment on Twitter.
While Oliver was merely offering an opinion, many took his words as a fact-based assessment of the situation.
“This from John Oliver is utterly fantastic – FINALLY a mainstream voice has found the courage to report the truth on Israel and Palestine!,” was first posted by Bywire News (@bywirenews).
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Stand Your Ground
It may have been the monologue that received the most attention on social media after a show, in his main segment Oliver tackled the issue of “Stand Your Ground” laws. That was also a bit of a lightning rod, and some of his opinions were again presented as fact-based. This included when he called the controversial firearms laws, “Rosetta Stone for justified homicides.”
The segment was also widely praised across social media by various gun control groups and supporters including Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts), founder of Moms Demand Action.
Additionally, other media outlets also shared the segment as if it were “news” and not “entertainment.” This included pop culture outlet The A.V. Club (@TheAVClub), which tweeted, “John Oliver stands his ground against racist, needless stand your ground laws”
Multiple responses on Twitter also suggested that viewers accepted the segments as actual “news,” and tweeted quotes without proper context or counterpoint:
Entertainment Vs. News
While Oliver’s comments from both segments actually were trending as “entertainment” on Twitter, it is clear from the various responses from viewers that it was seen more as a news item. However, it wasn’t really what someone might label fair reporting.
It is part of a trend of news as entertainment.
“John Oliver is surrounded by credibility, web sites, cable shows, and text like ‘DEADLINE’ and ‘Sign up for Breaking News Alerts and Newsletters’ and Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight. All designed give Oliver credibility for reporting the news,” explained Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible.“John Oliver is a comedian, not a legitimate newscaster. When Jon Stewart left Comedy Channels’ Daily Show back in 2015, that show, and The Colbert Report ranked higher in the mid-thirty something age group than did Anderson Cooper 360 and The NBC Nightly News. Twelve percent of U.S. viewers turned to the Comedy Channel comedians for the nightly world news.”
The influence from celebrities has increased as the likes of Chrissy Teigen and Selena Gomez have used their social currency to have open conversations with their fans about important issues, while stars like Justin Bieber and Kylie Jenner and have built their careers using social media.
“There is one large potential problem for the celebrities/athletes which is polarizing,” said Safko. “Once you make a controversial personal opinion public, there’s no going back. You invariably alienate 50 percent of your fans, supporters, and followers.”
Opinion Or News
In Oliver’s monolog it was solely the comedian’s personal opinions, and in the main segment careful editing and selective commentary controlled the narrative. Yet, it is increasingly common that we see this sort of one-sided content shared on the platforms as if it is fact-based reporting.
“As we’ve moved in the post-truth and post-election mindset, the line between news and entertainment has become increasingly blurred to where you can’t tell one from the other, especially on social media,” warned futurist and brand expert Scott Steinberg who regularly tracks social media trends.
“The loudest voice carries the day, and this is because everybody in the news media is incentivized to interject commentary and opinion, often over hard facts,” Steinberg added. “What is happening now is that people aren’t gravitating to straight news any longer, and instead they are watching more commentary and ‘lighting strike’ style segments that are meant to reinforce their own opinions.”
The same is true of the content on the cable news networks where the evening block is made up not of “news” but political commentary. Just as Tucker Carlson presents his world view so too is John Oliver. The danger is when that view isn’t seen as biased or one-sided, and is shared on social platform as hard news.
“This happens because people tend to gravitate toward their own tribe and the media has just catered to it,” explained Steinberg. “A lot of the confusion is in the role of a commentator who is increasingly perceived to be a journalist. The news media and commentators have been pushed to an extreme, where every issue has been taken to the nth degree. It may depend on where you sit on an issue as to whether you see this as accurate reporting or even if it borders now on misinformation.”
This trend isn’t likely to change.
“We as consumers need to be more selective in where we become informed and whose trusted opinion can actually be trusted,” said Safko. “It’s a slight twist on the old ‘caveat emptor’ or ‘buyer beware’ but now for goodness’ sake, don’t take your news and opinions from comedians.”