Comedian John Oliver’s HBO series Last Week Tonight made its comeback this past Sunday, broadcasting for the first time since the election. As expected, the liberal bastion dedicated the show’s main segment to the new administration as opposed to the usual, as Oliver puts it, “depressing policy issues.”
The segment launched into a discussion about reality and fact, taking a look at Donald Trump’s personal relationship with the truth and information — specifically, where the president gets his news. Oliver emphasized non-factual sources of news like Breitbart and Alex Jones’ Info Wars as an information stream for Trump. He even pointed out several blatantly false stories the president has propagated that were reported exclusively by one of these two outlets. A memorable example would be Info Wars’ baseless story on 3 million illegal votes cast in the election that the president is still pushing today.
In a similar fashion, Oliver successfully proved the presence of an information stream that flows from morning cable news shows like Morning Joe and Fox and Friends, straight to the president’s tweets and comments. This is a point that has been reiterated by other observers who have been critical of Trump’s media consumption. As an avid follower of Last Week Tonight, I personally feel disappointed with how the segment ended because it seemed that Oliver was merely regurgitating the popular narrative that our president has an unsettling relationship with facts and media.
And then something brilliant happened. John Oliver launched a new type of information war.
In the last few minutes of the show, Oliver talked about how to preserve objective reality and keep our president in check with the facts. He then announced that his show bought commercial spots for every morning cable news show broadcast in the D.C. area in an effort to microtarget a very specific audience: the President of the United States. The commercials that will air in these time slots will be short, fact-filled information sessions designed to indirectly increase Trump’s knowledge on subjects like the Nuclear Triad and the Geneva Convention — all disguised as cowboy themed advertisements for catheters.
Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times called it “brashly original guerrilla warfare.”
I couldn’t agree more. Most will probably dismiss this as the usual hijinx the show is known for, like the time Oliver established his own Church to make a point about religious tax exemption. Truthfully, I doubt catheter ads with thinly veiled attacks on the president’s intellect will be a valid way to change Trump’s mind. But there is a deeper lesson in this new, elevated level of comedy.
“Trump was telling the truth about his solutions to the problems he was lying about, and he is now making real policy based on fake facts,” Oliver said.
Not only does the president subscribe to misinformation, his supporters do too, as evidenced by consistent opinion polling. A recent Politico poll shows that about a quarter of the public at large believe Trump’s voter fraud claim. This is because Trump’s supporters treat him as a valid source, taking what he says as unbiased truth. As Oliver explains it, “If you get your news from similar sources to [Trump], he doesn’t look like a crank. He looks like the first president to ever tell you the real truth.”
Liberals need to stop waiting for fake facts to become outrageous policy and toxic public opinion. They need to attack the policy at its source. In short: The left needs to start winning the info wars.
This means going to the source of bad information, and countering it before it gets into the hands of policymakers. This means thoroughly fact-checking news before sharing it with others, especially when it affirms your own opinions. After all, BuzzFeed’s work organizing fake news data shows that about 20 percent of liberal news shared on Facebook in 2016 contained false information. It also means utilizing similar guerilla warfare tactics to Oliver’s, whether that means buying ads on conservative news sources or overriding social media newsfeeds with fake news links that redirect to factual information. In the end, if we want to win, we have to play a little dirty.