John Oliver explains how to spot 'astroturfing,' admits it isn't easy, warns that cynicism is 'toxic'
On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver tackled the phenomenon of "astroturfing," and he kicked it off with a pretty vulgar joke. Then he got down to business: "Astroturfing is the practice of corporations or political groups disguising themselves as spontaneous, authentic popular movements. It's basically fake grassroots — that's why they call it 'astroturfing.'" Some of these campaigns are pretty obvious, he said, playing one example, but "with dark money surging in the wake of decisions like Citizens United, astroturfing techniques are becoming more sophisticated, effective, and dangerous, and they are not going away."
Oliver proposed exploring those techniques "to better spot them in the future," and he started with the nomenclature, specifically the gallingly deceitful names some groups adopt. He used the work of one notorious adman, Richard Berman, as an example. Astroturfing front groups also sometimes hire "expert" witnesses. And in "one of the most infuriating tools of astroturfing," he said, some groups pay protesters to demonstrate on their behalf — and there are companies like Crowds on Demand that offer those services.
Conspiracy theorists now claim Crowds on Demand provides actors in all sorts of real situations, like the Las Vegas shooting, which is "hugely dangerous," Oliver said. "The consequences of this cannot be that everyone assumes that anyone who doesn't agree with them is astroturf. While skepticism is healthy, cynicism — real cynicism — is toxic." And until "we find out a way to force astroturf groups to be more transparent and accountable," our common sense is our best tool, he said. He ended with an anti-astroturfing ad — pay attention to who purportedly sponsored it. (The video is frequently NSFW.) Peter Weber
On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver shone a little light on an important person in your community who, if you are lucky, you don't think about very often, if ever. "Whenever we talk about criminal justice reform, we tend to just talk about policing, public defenders, judges, and prisons, and skip over a crucial element there: prosecutors, the attorneys who work for the federal, state, and local government and bring cases to trial," he said. "Prosecutors decide whether you get charged and what you get charged with, and therefore heavily influence what kind of sentence you could face."
People tend to overlook the power prosecutors have, so "let's start with a truly incredible fact here: The vast majority of the time, your fate is not decided by a judge or a jury of your peers, because nearly 95 percent of the cases prosecutors decide to bring end up with the defendant pleading guilty," Oliver said. Judges are mostly resigned to this system, "because at least plea bargains keep the system moving," he explained, and prosecutors have a lot of tools to get innocent people to plead guilty.
For the 5 percent who opt for a trial, prosecutors control the case files, sometimes "ambush" the defense with exculpatory evidence right before the trial, or they never hand it over — and when they are caught withholding evidence, Oliver found only one district attorney ever held to account, barely. He gave some egregious examples of misconduct and suggested some legislative fixes, but argued the easiest way to hold prosecutors accountable is to elect reform-minded district attorneys. Which requires a little bit of research. "Most people know as much about their local D.A. as they know about their local Cheesecake Factory manager," he said: "Chances are, you don't know who they are, and if you do, it's probably because something truly terrible has happened." There is NSFW language. Watch below. Peter Weber
John Oliver finds some accidental genius in Trump's recorded chats with Michael Cohen, incriminating tweets
John Oliver began Sunday's Last Week Tonight with the latest installment of his look at President Trump's "Stupid Watergate" mess — a scandal "with the potential gravity of Watergate, if the entire White House was on bath salts and Nixon was a raccoon with his head stuck in a jar of peanut butter." And it's not just that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was somehow on the same recent flight as Donald Trump Jr., he said. "There was a series of potentially damaging revelations this week, courtesy of the president's former lawyer, Michael Cohen."
"Historically, 'there are tapes' hasn't worked out well for presidents," Oliver said. "It's one of those phrases that is universally foreboding, like 'the virus is airborne' or 'Ronan Farrow is working on an article about you.'" The tape where Trump discusses burying his alleged affair with a Playboy model "could be a problem for multiple reasons," he said, but Cohen's "second bombshell" about Trump knowing beforehand of the meeting his son and campaign chiefs had with Kremlin-linked officials offering election collusion "is potentially huge," if not all that surprising. "Breaking news: The president actually knew about meeting that involved his son, his son-in-law, and his campaign manager discussing dirt about his greatest enemy that took place where he lived and worked in a building which has his f---ing name on it!"
The last development is Mueller reportedly weighing whether Trump's tweets constitute obstruction of justice, a situation Oliver agreed might highlight Trump's accidental genius: "Just think about it — it's innately hard to believe something is a crime when it's done loudly and blatantly right in front of you."
Oliver also had a NSFW message for Facebook, in response to the social network giant's public-image-burnishing promise to return to its friend-sharing roots. And he elaborated his point with his own version of Facebook's ad, which is also NSFW. You can watch it below. Peter Weber
John Oliver is skeptical that #MeToo has vanquished sexual harassment at work, gets advice from Anita Hill
John Oliver dedicated most of Sunday's Last Week Tonight to the topic of workplace sexual harassment, and he began with a self-deprecating wink: "Who better to talk about it than me, a man? 'When will the male perspective on harassment be heard?' the public has been crying out. Well, wait no longer, tonight is the night." Sexual harassment at work has been a problem for decades, the most recent reminder being the new allegation against CBS boss Les Moonves, "and whenever the subject of workplace harassment comes up, you can bet on one thing: men getting very nervous." His examples came mostly from Fox News personalities."
It seems today "like we're on the verge of national reckoning about sexual harassment," Oliver said, but are we really? He compared the recent #MeToo and Times Up headlines to eerily similar ones from the early 1990s, prompted by Anita Hill's treatment from Senate Republicans. The 1990s effort to eradicate workplace harassment clearly "did not work," he said, "so tonight, since we seem to be going in circles on this issue, let's try and at least talk about it — if only because no one wants to see 'ending workplace harassment' as the unofficial theme of the 2048 Oscars."
Oliver explained the legal definition of workplace harassment, then paraphrased it: "It's not a single sh---y joke or a botched compliment, it's going out of your way to make someone else's workday a psychosexual nightmare." And he explained why any type of sexual harassment is problematic. "Time was supposed to be up in 1981, and 1991, and now time is supposed to be up again," Oliver said. "Will this go-around be any different? I honestly don't know." So he interviewed Anita Hill to get some perspective, and you can watch that interesting conversation below. (Note: The entire video is peppered with NSFW language.) Peter Weber
Last week, President Trump, "the abusive father America will be talking about in therapy for the next 40 years," signed an executive order to end his heavily criticized family-separation border policy, John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. This, after weeks of saying he couldn't do anything, his hands were tied. "Yes, Trump claimed he couldn't do a thing, and then he did it — which is a little strange because he usually claims he can do things and then doesn't do them, like draining the swamp or locking up Hillary or attending Tiffany's Sweet 16," Oliver said.
"Unfortunately, that executive order has some significant hitches," like the glaring holes in his administration's plan to reunite more than 2,000 children it separated with their parents, Oliver pointed out. "'How long it will take' and 'how it will get done' are the whole plan. That's like a recipe for cake that just says 'You're going to have some cake.'" He was even less impressed with the lengths to which Trump supporters went to excuse or deflect from putting children in cages, especially Stuart Varney on Fox & Friends.
Oliver went on to gawk at the almost unbelievable ad campaign 7-Eleven ran in Norway, as well as other ads for "sexual health" in the Scandinavian nation. It gets kind of gross, quite funny, and a little NSFW. Watch below. Peter Weber
John Oliver unforgettably previews Mexico's election and its Trumpean, Bernie Sanders–like frontrunner
Mexico shares with the U.S. "a 1,900-mile border, and they're our third-largest trading partner — and something massive is about to take place there," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight, previewing next Sunday's landmark national elections. Sure, "the biggest election in Mexico's history" may not "mean much to most Americans — it's like saying the biggest mattress sale in Dutch history," he said. But Oliver, being Oliver, made his rundown entertaining, informative, and a little disturbing.
Mexicans are sick of the status quo and their current president, Enrique Peña Nieto — Oliver repeated the NSFW chant Mexicans have for him, in English and Spanish — and they are expected to go in a radically different direction, electing populist firebrand Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly known by his initials, AMLO.
Oliver explained why Peña Nieto and his PRI party are so unpopular — endemic corruption, murder, crime — and walked through some candidates who won't win, most entertainingly the Santa Claus–hating independent Jaime "El Bronco" Rodriguez. "Center-right policy wonk" Ricardo Anaya is No. 2 in the polls, but AMLO is expected to win. "And you can kind of see the appeal," Oliver said. "AMLO is kind of like Bernie Sanders, but with a better haircut and significantly better Spanish." The details of AMLO's policies are "pretty sketchy," though, he said, and in some ways "he's actually more reminiscent of a Mexican Donald Trump — which I know is a weird image to conjure up, like Orthodox Hitler or jacked Gandhi."
"The point here is, while the hope in AMLO is real, the content is a question mark," Oliver said. "And it says something about how entrenched the problems in Mexico are and the level of dissatisfaction that they seem so willing to take a gamble on him." Bobby Moynihan's autoerotic Santa Claus is one of the many NSFW parts of this episode, but if you're game, watch below. Peter Weber
John Oliver has a fiendish plan to get around Britain's censorship of his satirical use of Parliament footage
Last week's Last Week Tonight had a segment about the speaker of Britain's House of Commons delivering put-downs, but nobody in Britain saw it, John Oliver said on Sunday's show. "And not for the normal reasons of disinterest, ignorance about this show's existence, or longstanding aversion to my name and face." At the designated spot in the U.K., he said, the show "just cut to black — like I'd just been murdered on The Sopranos. And the reason for that is, in the U.K., it is, unbelievably, against the law to use footage from the House of Commons for the purpose of comedy. It's true!"
"This law is patently offensive," Oliver said. "Britain is supposed to be one of the world's great free societies. We came up with the Magna Carta, and we allow a product called 'Daddies Brown Sauce' to be sold, regardless of how disturbing that sounds. That's freedom right there! And this anti-satire law isn't just hypocritical, it is a legitimate burden because it's genuinely hard to use parliamentary footage for purposes that are not comedy. Parliament is inherently ridiculous." He showed some examples.
"The fact that we are using parliamentary footage in making fun of this means that this part of the show is now going to be blacked out in the U.K. tomorrow as well, which is genuinely insane and frankly antidemocratic," Oliver said. So to punish Britain — or Oliver's fans in Britain? — Last Week Tonight will replace this part of the show in the U.K. with five minutes of footage of Gilbert Gottfried reading three-star Yelp reviews of restaurants in Boise, Idaho. You can get a mercifully short taste of that below. Peter Weber
John Oliver details how Trump and Fox News are winning their fight to discredit the Mueller probe, O.J. style
A year into Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, President Trump and his allies are openly and actively trying to discredit it, John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. And while "everyone involved is dumb and terrible and bad at everything," their efforts are working.
If Trump can't be indicted, then impeachment is the only remedy if Trump committed a crime — an open question — and impeachment is a political process, where public opinion really does matter, Oliver said. "The question, 'Did a hostile a foreign government try to manipulate our election?' is something any reasonable person should want answered quickly, and yet, an increasing number of Americans seem to want the investigation to stop." To understand how Trump and his lawyers are fueling this trend, you really need to know what's going on with "Trump's TV friends," he argued.
Sean Hannity and other Fox News personalities are trying to "redefine the investigation on their terms," like hammering on "collusion," a word Mueller's broad mandate doesn't even mention, Oliver noted. "Saying the investigation has to shut down if there's no collusion is like saying a game of Scrabble has to end because you've fit all the letters in your mouth." They also employ "whataboutism" and work to build a counternarrative, like "spygate."
These conspiracy theories are impervious to fact, they "can make it easy to forget just how bad what we actually do know already is," and they don't even address "the most obvious question" — why did Trump win? Oliver said. "Basically everyone in the country got together to steal an election, and then, for some reason, forgot to do it?" But while the Trump team's tactics are "transparent, illogical, and dump," they're also "depressingly effective," he sighed, making a specific comparison: "Trump is going full O.J., and it's working." Watch his explanation, and his argument against shutting down Mueller's investigation, in the frequently NSFW video below. Peter Weber