A dark side of comedy: the Wikipedia volunteers cleaning up behind John Oliver's fowl jokes: Wikipedia editors logging in on May 19 found themselves walking into an unexpected amount of anti-vandal work to keep the site in line with its extensive biographies of living persons policy. A plethora of Wikipedia articles related to the United States House Committee on Appropriations, and the fifty-one representatives serving on it, have been hit by a raft of anonymous editors making often vulgar edits referencing "chicken fucker," or more creative combinations: "sexual conduct", "sexual congress", "fornicator", "intimate relations", or "trysts with chickens."
Wikipedia editors logging in on May 19 found themselves walking into an unexpected amount of anti-vandal work to keep the site in line with its extensive biographies of living persons policy. A plethora of Wikipedia articles related to the United States House Committee on Appropriations, and the five representatives serving on it, have been hit by a raft of anonymous editors making often vulgar edits referencing "chicken fucker," or more creative combinations: "sexual conduct", "sexual congress", "fornicator", "intimate relations", or "trysts with chickens."
This unusual burst of interest in a congressional committee can be traced back to a talk show on HBO.
"I haven't even decided if I like this show yet!"
John Oliver's Last Week Tonight is a popular late-night satirical news show on HBO, a premium cable network. Oliver, a British comedian, was a correspondent on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but his big break came when he was given the opportunity to guest-host the show for eight weeks in summer 2013. His success there directly led to Last Week Tonight, where he has crafted his own niche with lengthy and in-depth looks into serious topics with a comedic and satirical voice.
The show's signature voice emerged "almost as a dare," the Associated Press reported in February, when Oliver and the show's writers decided to do an extended twelve-minute segment on the very serious topic of the death penalty. As he said before launching in head first, "I know what you’re thinking. ... Wait, you’re not really going to do a comic take on the death penalty, right? It’s your second episode—I haven't even decided if I like this show yet!" When uploaded to YouTube, the piece was quickly viewed millions of times, and the show has replicated this success; his subsequent rant on net neutrality has been credited by the press with drawing attention to and helping turn the tide against the plans of Comcast and other US Internet providers.
While Oliver has thus far largely avoided Wikipedia until this week, the encyclopedia has been a frequent target of other late-night shows. Stephen Colbert of the now-former Colbert Report, another satirical news show inspired by the Daily Show, made the encyclopedia the subject of a number of segments. For example, in a 2006 segment, Colbert claimed to have vandalized the articles Oregon and elephant, inspiring vandalism aping the edits mentioned on the show (see previous Signpostcoverage). Just last week on the Daily Show, Stewart himself called for vandalizing the article on US President Warren G. Harding in a May 12 segment.
"Accusations do not come off a Wikipedia page easily"
As Oliver tells it, independent chicken farmers are contracted by the four major chicken producers in the United States—Perdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride, Sanderson Farms, and Tyson Foods—to raise the chickens. These companies control the money-making parts of the operations, dropping off chicks and picking up fully-grown chickens a month later, while off-loading the significant costs of property, construction, upkeep, and equipment to the farmers. This upkeep is not inexpensive; the companies continually add to their required equipment, such as when they told their farmers to convert their chicken-holding buildings into tunnel houses to limit chickens' movement (thus fattening them). Those who refused to do so would immediately lose their contracts. These individuals can be easily penalized; they are graded on the quality of chickens they produce, and those not performing up to par can and do see their promised payments cut by up to half.
Complicating matters further, Oliver writes, is that there is little to no whistleblower protection for these farmers. If they speak up, farmers believe that they are given more of the "8, 9, 10" chickens—that is, the unhealthiest chicks on a 1–10 scale—and have their payments cut. There is a law on the books to prevent this from happening, but Steve Womack, the representative from Arkansas's 3rd congressional district—the home of Tyson's global headquarters and recipient of almost $70,000 from Tyson alone since 2011—has championed an annual rider that prevents the US government from enforcing its provisions.
Meanwhile, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur crafted an amendment that would have prevented chicken producers from retaliating against farmers who speak up, but it was voted down. This set the stage for the closing minutes of Oliver's show:
"There is actually a glimmer of hope [for chicken farmers]. That same committee is set to meet again next month, and Marcy Kaptur might again try to pass a provision protecting farmers from retaliation. And if she does, let me use the chicken companies' weapon against them. I'm talking, of course, of using jangly guitar music to convince you that everything I'm about to say is true."
Standing in front a screen with the faces, names, and states of congressmen and women, he continued. "There are fifty-one voting members on the committee. These are their names and their states. If your representative's name is up there, and they vote against Marcy Kaptur's amendment, it is because they—and I cannot stress this enough—are chicken fuckers. They fuck chickens. That's what they do. Every day, every which way."
He concluded with an explicit threat, using Wikipedia as the stick and the vote as a carrot: "unless they want that chicken fucker label to follow them for the rest of their lives, they might want to think extra carefully about which way they are going to vote, because "chicken fucker" accusations do not come off a Wikipedia page easily. Or if they do, they tend to go right back up. Because chicken producers may be able to retaliate against chicken farmers for speaking out, but they cannot prevent us, as one, from screaming "chicken fucker" at the top of our lungs if any of these people votes against the farmers in this tiny, tiny amendment. All potential chicken fuckers here [pointing at the screen]. Don't be one of them, that's all we're saying. That's our show."
"Crimes most foul," say Wikipedia editors
Inevitably, vandals descended on the articles of Committee members, regardless of how they voted on the amendment. Even Kaptur's article was vandalized by an IP editor complaining about her supposedly being against the amendment she herself offered. Many administrators participated in reverting the vandalism and protecting articles, and one created an edit filter to flag edits adding variations on the phrase "chicken fucker." Perhaps unsurprisingly, Steve Womack's page was heavily hit, leading to nearly one hundred edits in the last few days. At least 36 other articles were also vandalized during the spree.
In an administrator's noticeboard discussion, editors discussed what EEngcalled Oliver's "Crimes most foul." Some suggested writing to Oliver and Jon Stewart, Oliver's former boss. Kevin Rutherfordwrote that they should be asked to "abstain from encouraging mass-vandalism, because it causes a lot of trouble on our end". Others responded that such an effort would be futile. MarnetteDnoted noted that "they are entertainers ... they and their staff could care less about what happens with Wikipedia articles."
On the other side, editors like Chillumcommented on the biographies of living persons noticeboard in support of the editing freedom: "to a lot of people shaming politicians is far more important than an online encyclopedia. Without this sort of political mockery we would probably not have the freedom we need to run this project." MastCellfound it hard to be angry with Oliver "when he has the smartest and funniest show on television."
Berean Hunter, however, came out as one of the strongest voices against Oliver's actions. On-wiki, he said that "we need to send Mr. Oliver this special delivery from all of his friends at Wikipedia." When contacted by the Signpost, he went farther:
It is irresponsible and unethical behavior whether there is humor in it or not. The exploitation of non-profit organizations and their volunteers doesn't usually bode well when perpetrated by any public figure at any time and there is nothing different in this circumstance. It is seriously time consuming for the volunteers that do not find the vandalism amusing since they have to clean up the mess. ...
Pulling such stunts reflect negatively on him and public view could turn on him with a boomerang effect. It isn't too terribly clever or impressive to provoke destructive actions en masse for the sake of humor. If you want to be clever, try steering the same crowd towards doing something far more productive and meaningful for the sake of humor instead of wasting the potential. Try inspiring others into helping people rather than hurting them.
He ought to make a hefty donation as an atonement to help support Wikipedia as well as spend some time in the trenches with our fellow editors to gain more insight into the effects of his actions.
The Signpost emailed Quentin Schaffer and Jeff Cusson, the press contacts for HBO, with a copy deadline of 21:00 UTC Wednesday. They did not reply.
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