Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 8 Episode 26
Aired on October 10, 2021
Main segment: Misinformation
Other segments: Janice McGeachin, One America News Network–AT&T controversial deal
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[Cheers and applause]
John: Welcome, welcome, welcome to “Last Week Tonight!” I’m John Oliver. Thank you so much for joining us. Just time for a quick recap of the week. And it’s been busy one. A former Facebook employee confirmed what everyone basically knew, Facebook’s terrible and it’s very much by design. Otis the Bear, the three-time winner of fat bear week became the four-time winner, because meritocracy is a lie and our system is broken. And in Idaho, there was this dramatic power grab.
There is a blistering battle happening now between the two top elected officials in Idaho. Lieutenant governor Janice McGeachin signed an executive order banning vaccine mandates in schools and Covid testing in certain capacities. The problem is the governor, Brad Little, was out of the state when she did it, and quickly promised to undo the order.
John: Yeah, it’s true! While the Idaho governor was out of state, his lieutenant governor issued an executive order trying to ban schools from requiring employees to be vaccinated. And not just that — she also sent the state national guard a query about activating troops and sending them to the U.S.-Mexico border. Which is a pretty bold move from a second in command. It’s basically a plane’s pilot going to the bathroom and the co-pilot announcing, “change of plans, we’re headed to reno. My buddy said he’d set me up with his cousin if I was ever there, and I saw a picture of her and she’s an absolute smokeshow. So strap in, folks. It’s gonna be bumpy on purpose.” And the thing is, in Idaho, the lieutenant governor does technically become acting governor whenever the actual governor leaves the state thanks to a state constitution that was definitely written long before cell phones existed, but knowing that, it’s pretty remarkable that Brad Bittle chose to leave the state at all, especially because McGeachin had actually tried a similar stunt back in may when he left for a conference in Tennessee and she issued an order banning mask mandates. So it feels borderline reckless for him to step outside the state right now because it’s not like she’s ever disguised who she is. Just look at this appearance she made last year in a video criticizing Covid restrictions.
We recognize that all of us are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing happiness, and securing safety.
John: Wow. That is a rich text. Although, I will say, that represents the republican party better than anything I’ve ever seen. An elephant? Doesn’t quite do it. A swirly snake saying don’t tread on me? No. But a gun bible and a misquoted declaration of independence? That is the republican party I know. And it seems like this is going to be an ongoing problem, having to keep a constant eye on the ultra-right in this country, so they don’t suddenly grab the wheel and steer us straight into hell. And speaking of hell, that brings us to our second story, OAN, the one America news network. You may remember we covered it last year. It’s a far right channel that peddles Covid misinformation and conspiracy theories. Well, this week, we learned some pretty unsettling news.
A new Reuters investigation based on a review of court records reveals that OAN has flourished thanks to financial support from a surprising mainstream source, AT&T.
John: Yup! Turns out AT&T has been up to some shit. And it’s worth noting — AT&T is still, technically, our business daddy, making OAN our business stepsibling, and not in a hot way. Reuters reported that, in depositions, OAN’s founder Robert Herring testified AT&T executives once told him they wanted a conservative network, and he claims, “when they said that, I jumped to it and built one.” And once he built the channel, AT&T carried it. First on their U-verse system, and then on DIRECTV. And with that help, OAN has grown into the toxic network it is today, one that’s happy to give a platform to batshit election fraud theories from America’s most out-of-breath pillow fetishist, and one that, a few months ago, featured one of its commentators saying this.
Despite their best efforts, the radical democrats left fingerprints all over the country, providing a trail of evidence that the 2020 election was not only tampered with, but was actually overthrown. Any American involved in these efforts, from those who ran the voting machines to the very highest government officials, is guilty of treason under U.S. Code 2381, which carries with it the penalty of death.
John: Yeah… Look, I get that we’re watching a call for mass executions from a guy with, for lack of a better term, “big theater kid energy,” but are you really saying those who ran the voting machines could be traitors? You mean Dolores? Dolores from down the street? Who volunteered to spend 12 hours of her — let’s face it — dwindling “NCIS”-watching time doling out participation stickers to voters? That Dolores? All right, death to Dolores, I guess. Sorry, lo-lo, but decaf pitbull here heard a rumor from a pillow salesman that you deserve the chair. Now, I have to tell you, AT&T says that no “senior” executive suggested to Herring that he create another conservative network, with the carve-out of “senior” there being pretty striking. They also say they’ve never had a financial interest in OAN’s success and “do not fund” the network, neither of which is 100% the issue here. They also claim the only reason OAN was on DIRECTV was that the network had sued them. And okay! I guess the largest telecom company in the world got rolled in a lawsuit by a ragtag band of fascists. It happens! But the larger point is, OAN would be literally nothing without AT&T. An OAN accountant reportedly said, under oath, that AT&T provided 90% of Herring Networks’ income. As for OAN’s horrendous content, AT&T told us DIRECTV respects the editorial independence of the channels it carries, just as AT&T is committed to providing editorial independence for every warner media show, including this one. And that is such a relief! Especially that last part. Because if I may, I’d like to use that generous editorial independence to offer some constructive feedback. Take AT&T’s recent campaign. “More for your thing, that’s our thing,” which is, respectfully, complete gibberish. It sounds like Yoda pitching a penis-enlargement device. It’s so nonsensical I have to assume something was lost in communication, which actually would be a much more appropriate slogan for the company. And if you don’t like that, AT&T, don’t worry, I’ve got more. How about “AT&T, all the business savvy of Quibi without the courtesy of committing corporate suicide.” Or “AT&T, if you run a cable out the back of your headquarters and plug it into T-Mobile’s network while they aren’t looking, that’s legal, right? Asking for a friend.” Any of those are yours if you want them! And look, AT&T, I know our relationship is a little awkward, especially since you’re trying to spin this business baby off in your deal with discovery. But while we’re still technically related, let me just say this. You’re a terrible company. You do bad things and you make the world worse. Please don’t bother keeping in touch once the merger’s complete. Although that shouldn’t be a problem. You’re AT&T. It’s not like your messages will go through anyway. And now, this.
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And now, Fox and friends as Brian Kilmeade likes Christopher Columbus way, way too much.
If you read one reputable book on Columbus and still don’t think we should have a Columbus Day, you’re not paying attention.
He married to world of the time. I just did the math, 527 years ago, Christopher Columbus discovered the new world. What he did as an explorer fighting the odds to do so they said was like going to the moon today but only more dangerous.
One person described as going to the moon back in the 1960s only more dangerous.
Only it was more dangerous.
Only more dangerous. Basically, he did the equivalent of going to the moon in the 1490s. Not good enough. Actually more dangerous.
I was almost the Christopher Columbus of the show.
You are the Christopher Columbus of pet gives.
Some people who think Columbus is actually Spanish.
I don’t buy that at all. I read four voyages and totally Italian. Couldn’t be more Italian. I was Columbus for Halloween, no pictures available.
I’m like what you talking about?
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John: Moving on. For a main story tonight, we’re going to talk about the internet, magical place where you find communities of like-minded individuals like a TikToker who created the story about things narrowly fitting into tight spaces, something the succeeding week British woman was a big fan of.
All right, here we go! Oh, that went nice. That literally fitted perfectly. Oh, that’s nice. Oh, bloody hell, bit close for comfort, that. Stressing me out a bit, but that were nice. Oh, go on! Oh, yes, go on. How’d you find that all these things fit, do you know what I mean? Did you just sit in your house and just see if things fit in holes?
John: You know what? She’s asking a legitimate question there. And I do think the answer is “yes.” But sadly, our story isn’t going to be about the fun side of the internet. It’s going to be about the rampant misinformation on it. It’s something we’ve covered multiple times before, from Alex Jones to vaccine misinformation to conspiracy theories. But tonight, we’re going to look specifically at misinformation that spreads among immigrant, diaspora communities. Basically, instead of stuff like this Facebook post in English, titled “the fake vaccination of Kamala Harris,” which, incidentally, Facebook has flagged as false information, we’re going to be looking at stuff like this post in Spanish, featuring the exact same video which — as of this taping — has no such warning. And that actually isn’t that surprising when you consider that — according to the recent Facebook files expose — while more than 90 percent of Facebook’s monthly users are outside the U.S. and Canada, when it comes to the hours the company spends on monitoring misinformation, last year, only 13% were spent on content from outside the U.S. so it seems that Facebook’s adopted the same general attitude to misinformation that the Oscars took toward best pictures for the first 90 years of its existence. Basically, if it doesn’t happen in English, it doesn’t fundamentally matter. And the spread of misinformation has real consequences. When a reporter recently tried to figure out why vaccination rates among Latino communities in California’s central valley remain low, one woman explained her reluctance like this.
I’ve listened to health leaders.
There’s a doctor who I’ve heard and seen in some documentaries who says that the virus is curable. I found one of the female doctor.
The most important thing for my people of El Salvador is to say no. We shouldn’t be getting the Covid vaccine.
How did you find this video?
My mother sent it to me.
Through what means?
She sent it through Facebook.
Why do you believe this doctor and not someone like dr. Fauci?
I haven’t seen dr. Fauci.
No, I haven’t.
John: Yeah, that’s not great! Is it? And it’s a pretty good reminder of how, thanks to social media, it’s possible to silo yourself off and have very different experiences of living in America. Because she was aware of a doctor from El Salvador peddling bullshit Covid cures, but had never heard of dr. Fauci. And on that point, I honestly kind of envy her. Whatever you think about Fauci, I think we can all agree, it would have been great to have seen significantly less of him over the last year and a half. That woman will never know the dystopian hell of seeing Fauci superimposed over a votive candle or hearing people refer to the vaccine as a Fauci Ouchie. She enjoys an inner peace I will never know. And look, we clearly haven’t remotely figured out what to do with English-language misinformation yet, as proven by the fact that when I say the words “horse dewormer” or “the letter q,” you know exactly what I’m referring to. But while I know it’s hard to imagine that the situation could be worse, when it comes to non-English language misinformation, it honestly is. So tonight, let’s talk about misinformation in diaspora communities, how easily it can be spread, and what can be done about it. And let’s start with the fact that while some misinformation is basically the same in other languages, in other cases, it taps into culturally specific interests or fears. For instance, communities with lived experience under communist or socialist regimes are often targeted with misinformation that tries to stoke fears about socialism. In fact, Joe Biden’s underperformance in majority-Latino areas in Florida may have had a lot to do with the fact that Cuban communities, were inundated by false claims like this.
For the past few months, many Hispanic-American voters have seen reports and images trying to tie Joe Biden to socialism. For instance, this photo has been floating around on social media. It claims to be Jill Biden next to Fidel Castro. But in fact, this is false. It’s actually a photo of late Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his wife, Jacqueline Bier.
John: Okay, that photo is clearly not Jill Biden. And that’s definitely not Joe Biden. Although it looks a lot more like him than this animatronic version at Disney world’s hall of presidents does. What is going on there? That looks like what would happen if an elderly Anderson Cooper got a facelift from a plastic surgeon without a medical license. And sometimes, the spread of misinformation is exacerbated by the fact that, for many diaspora communities here in the U.S., There just aren’t many alternatives in their own languages. For many older Vietnamese Americans, there’s such a vacuum of credible news channels that broadcast in Vietnamese that many turn to YouTube for their news, with certain channels on in their houses 24/7. One popular host based here in the U.S. is Nguy Vu, who brands himself “King Radio.” He’s basically a Vietnamese Alex Jones, as you can see in rants like these.
China completely has control of Biden. The whole situation with Hunter Biden’s laptop and the trove of data it contains, I think Xi Jinping has got his hands on all of it. George Soros was part of the financial plot to overthrow the trump administration. Why are we still being forced to wear masks? Masks are killing people. If you’re in a state that gives you the right to not wear a mask, and then you enter someone’s house but they try to make you wear one, tell them “fuck you.”
John: I mean, you can see where the Alex Jones comparisons come from. Both have voices that sound like bones going through a wood chipper, both have an inability to control the volume of said voices, and both have sets clearly inspired by a Windows 95 screensaver. Also, they seem to have the same business model with king radio selling his audience Viagra, medications, and beauty creams that he claims are made by his cousin. Which should be a huge red flag. Unless his cousin is named Steve Clinique, I do not want any creams from that individual. But again, while Alex Jones has been removed from YouTube for spreading misinformation, King Radio is still going strong on the platform, despite the fact you just heard him say, “masks are killing people,” which clearly violates YouTube’s ban on claims that wearing a mask is dangerous. And what I guess this means is, Alex Jones could probably find his way back onto YouTube. He just needs to complete a Rosetta Stone Vietnamese course. And as bad as Facebook and YouTube are — and they are screamingly bad — at least in theory, they can be monitored. But there’s another way misinformation spreads that’s actually invisible to most people, and unfortunately, also happens to be one of the most popular tools of communication among immigrant communities, and that is private messaging apps. The biggest, by far, is WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, which is massive all over the world. So much so, it’s become part of many people’s daily routine. In India, sending “good morning” messages on WhatsApp is incredibly popular, meaning millions of people wake up to relatives having sent them one of these, or even a video like this.
I will say, that’s an aggressively pleasant way to wake up! When we came across that message uploaded to YouTube, the top comment was simply “nice.” Which is pretty striking. Nothing else on the platform has a response that wholesome. You just know the American version of good morning would have a top comment like “you know who had a shit morning? Harambe. Rest in peace, king.” But it’s not just WhatsApp. Certain communities have their own preferred app. Korean immigrants have Kakaotalk, while more recent Chinese immigrants use WeChat. And if you’re not on these apps, it can be hard to understand just how central they are to people’s lives.
This tune and loading screen are instantly recognizable to over one billion people around the world. In China, where most western social media is banned, WeChat is essential. People use it to text each other, order food, hail rides, and pay for things. Outside of China, the diaspora uses it to connect with fellow Chinese speakers and issues in the country they’re living in.
John: Exactly. Communication, food orders, travel, payment, everything, all in one app. That’s so much more efficient than the U.S.-based model, where you have one app to convince you everyone’s having a better time than you, one that functions as an endlessly refreshing fury generator, one for pretending you’ll meditate one day, one that lets you pay too much for fast food, one for horny mistakes, and one that simply lets you know that you’re very old and the world no longer belongs to you. So I guess, in a way, kudos to WeChat for streamlining our shared digital nightmare into one convenient place. So these apps are a cheap and ubiquitous way to allow people to stay in touch with family and friends, and also get news and share information in their home languages. Which is obviously very appealing. Unfortunately, they’re also a huge vector for misinformation.
There is actually a saying in the Latino community, in the Venezuelan and Cuban communities about la tia del WhatsApp. It’s the aunt that goes on WhatsApp and receives any type of conspiracy theory and forwards it to all her contacts. We all have somebody in our family like that.
John: Oh, yeah, we do. And it’s almost comforting to know that regardless of background, every single family has one member that when anyone gets a message from them, the first response is to go “oh, shit, what now?” It’s a truly universal experience. And there are particular reasons these apps have become especially fertile grounds for misinformation. For instance, in many countries, Facebook — which, remember, owns WhatsApp — has partnered with mobile phone carriers to make accessing its services a lot cheaper than accessing the rest of the internet. So misinformation can spread far and wide without the same ability to check it. In Brazil, a broadband connection can cost up to 15 percent of a household’s income, essentially making fact-checking too expensive for the average Brazilian. Which is a truly terrifying thought. And WeChat has its own features that make sourcing harder to follow. Because it has a function for users to set themselves up as what’s known as self-media — basically a pseudo “news channel,” but there’s a crucial limitation there.
While Facebook and Twitter generally allow publishers to post links that take users to other websites, WeChat bans most publishers from embedding hyperlinks in articles. This means pretty much everything is self-contained on the platform. It’s hard to find the original source material and debunk it.
John: Right, and that’s a big deal, because who your source is matters! A book called “How I Broke Rules and Made History” reads completely differently if it was written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Osama Bin Laden. So misinformation can circulate freely on messaging apps, and in closed groups, basically invisible to the general public, and sometimes, when the messages are end-to-end encrypted, even to the companies that host them. And they’re often being passed around by trusted friends and family members, lending them an aura of legitimacy. And it can be truly exasperating for younger people to see just how susceptible their relatives are to this bullshit. Subreddits like “Asian parent stories” are full of posts like “WeChat fucked up my parents.” And listen to this woman read a message that was flying around her south African family’s WhatsApp group.
“Please do not full petrol to the maximum limit. It may cause explosion. This week, five explosion accidents have happened due to filling petrol to the maximum. Please do share this message. Rescue 1122.” I’ve never heard of it, I’ve never seen it, so I don’t see how she believes it. But you know what? Because WhatsApp says so, it’s true. Your car’s gonna explode.
John: Yeah, it’s true! I mean, it’s not. Your car’s not going to explode. What’s true is that misinformation like that is everywhere on these apps. Our own staff has had family members circulate things like these videos in Korean promoting conspiracy theories like Qanon, or this post about how ayurvedic doctors say we can save ourselves from coronavirus, with tips like “boiled black peppers in water and add lemon juice, it kills the virus.” Which would be great news if it was true, but it isn’t. This problem is so familiar to younger generations that one son of Indian parents mocked it on TikTok like this.
Here’s how you make brown parents believe literally anything. You’re gonna start with a plain background and write whatever you want, but just make sure you write it in this font, that’s crucial. Now, mention any religious text and talk about body, mind, spirit, or something like that and make sure that you mention a Harvard scientist helped confirm ancient wisdom, ’cause we love those headlines. Now, make a diagram that looks scientific and religious at the same time and throw some Sanskrit on there, don’t worry about accuracy. Beautiful! Now, mention some chemicals. I chose Kanye and Drake’s name and made them look like compounds. It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. Our uncles and aunties have PhDS in science but that’s no match for WhatsApp. Now, it’s imperative that you insult western medicine and culture at this last part. You know the drill. Three dots, three exclamation points, cite your sources, and make the image quality a little worse. And that is perfection.
John: Yeah! All it takes is a few superficial labels and stylish choices to convince people that something with no real substance is actually meaningful and good or, as it’s known in America, the marvel cinematic universe. While that was clearly fun, that guy later posted a followup saying that his image had worked slightly too well, because it was making the rounds on WhatsApp, but not always as a joke. And we’ve seen the very real impacts misinformation on these apps can have. In India, misinformation has been linked to violence and deaths, to the point where WhatsApp felt it necessary to create this ad.
Meet Kavya. She lives away from her family, but very close to their hearts on the family WhatsApp group. But today, she’s a little serious. Fufaji has forwarded some random fake news on the family group. Kavya called him right away.
Do you have some proof of that message or did you just forward it?
I just received it on some random group.
And made him understand that fake news can cause violence.
We shouldn’t circulate something dangerous, right?
She convinced Fufaji to leave that group. Be like Kavya. Share joy, not rumours.
John: Yeah, yeah, sure, it’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not great when you have to produce a PSA essentially saying, “look, some of what’s on our service is dangerous nonsense and if you could help clean it up for us, that’d be great!” At the very least, they might want to change that slogan to “share the responsibility for keeping misinformation from destroying the fabric of our society because we clearly can’t do it.” So what can we do about all this? Well, ideally, platforms like Facebook, YouTube and others would be at least as proactive about taking down misinformation in other languages as they are about taking it down in English. Which I know is a low, low bar, but it does say something about where we’re at right now. As for private messaging apps, that’s trickier, because of how they’re designed. And even when some have taken steps to slow the spread of misinformation, they’ve often amounted to half-measures. WhatsApp, for instance, started placing limits on the number of chats a message can be forwarded to, capping it at up to five chats at a time. Which might sound good, but in practice, it leaves plenty of room for damage.
If a message is sent to a WhatsApp group of 20, then each of them shares it with 20 other people, and this happens five times, it can reach more than 3 million people very quickly.
John: Yeah, it can still spread pretty far. And I know that this isn’t the main point here, but also how many of us are in two group chats of 20 different people each? And if you are, how the fuck do you sleep? How do you get anything done without constantly swiping away notifications? And if you’re thinking hold on, it’s not a problem, just mute them, then how do you then catch up on anything that’s happened in the chat? You’d spend half your day scrolling back up just so you’d know what this gif meant in context. Mom sent that? In response to what? I have to find out! A key problem right now is that many communities don’t have the same fact-checking resources that English-speaking ones do. If someone sends you an Alex Jones clip, you can respond to it with any number of trusted sources debunking him. You can send them something from politifact, or snopes, or factcheck.org. But if someone sends you a clip from king radio, Vietnamese-language fact-checking sources are thin on the ground. There are some — there’s Viet fact check, a volunteer-led project, and the interpreter, which works to translate news articles from reputable outlets into Vietnamese. But these are often small organizations, and the people running them are outmatched and understandably fucking exhausted. So groups like these need resources to better match the challenge they’re facing. But beyond that, there needs to be public pressure on platforms to do something about all forms of misinformation, whether they’re in English or not. Because a whole lot depends on this. And until they do, if you’re a member of one of these diaspora communities, you may need to prepare yourself for more difficult conversations with your least favorite uncles. Although there’s one tiny way we may be able to help, because we made some “good morning” messages specifically tailored for your needs. Like this one, which reads, “good morning! Take every chance you get in life and rethink sharing news from a bullshit source!” It might be easier to send that to an uncle in the morning rather than, you know, speak to him. Or you can send him a video message like this.
John: That’s right! It may not be the morning message they want, but it’s definitely the morning message that they need. And for Vietnamese-Americans in particular, if any of your relatives have King Radio on in the background 24 hours a day, we made a special message just for you.
John: You can download that message in both English and Vietnamese and a few more like them at bettermorningmessages.com. Feel free to use them when you can’t handle a whole conversation, but know that you really have to say something.
That’s our show, thank you so much for watching. We’re off next week, but we’ll be back after that. Good night!