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A dark side of comedy: the Wikipedia volunteers cleaning up behind John Oliver's fowl jokes

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By The ed17 and Gamaliel
Chickens walking down a friendly neighborhood street.
John Oliver in 2011.

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 Signpost coverage). 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"

Marcy Kaptur
Marcy Kaptur, a long-serving Representative from Ohio and proponent of protecting chicken farmers' right to speak out.

Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight followed a similar format: after taking aim at the US Patriot Act (on the USA Freedom Act passing the House of Representatives: "A meaningful bill passing with broad, bipartisan support. It's like discovering yourself sexually for the first time. I don't know what this sensation is, but I think I like it, and I want it to happen again."), Sepp Blatter's FIFA, and the Australian agriculture minister, they moved into a more than 18-minute-long segment on the plight of chicken farmers in the US.

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:

Chickens reacted with shock to Oliver's comments.

"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 EEng called Oliver's "Crimes most foul." Some suggested writing to Oliver and Jon Stewart, Oliver's former boss. Kevin Rutherford wrote 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. MarnetteD noted noted that "they are entertainers ... they and their staff could care less about what happens with Wikipedia articles."

Steve Womack, a five-year representative from Arkansas who has repeatedly voted in favor of chicken-producing companies. Tyson's global headquarters is located within his geographical district.

On the other side, editors like Chillum commented 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." MastCell found 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:

Oliver's segment was featured in numerous brief media stories, including ones in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time, and Deadline, but none appear to have looked into how Oliver's suggestion affected Wikipedia.

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.

A strutting chicken.

In brief

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  • Yeah I saw this episode on Sunday and thought to myself that there was going to be vandalism on the pages. John Oliver is definitely becoming the new Stephen Colbert when it comes to these things. GamerPro64 01:32, 21 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • "sixth administrator appointed this year": Eighth, actually. But only five of those (the ones not followed by parentheses, if you follow the link) are first-time admins. - Dank (push to talk) 13:10, 21 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • In the section "Accusations do not come off a Wikipedia page easily," one use of the word "stick" is linked to Big stick; this is a disambiguation page and is therefore undesirable. The context seems to be discussing the idea of carrot and stick. --SoledadKabocha (talk) 04:55, 23 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • This 'Signpost' is bad journalism. One, Oliver is quoted incorrectly as having made the nonsensical statement, "Because chicken farmers may be able to retaliate against chicken farmers for speaking out". (The first reference should be to "chicken producers".) Two, Oliver is quoted out of context. The closing remarks of his show were preceded by remarks, flagged by Oliver as speculative, on why representative Steve Womack would try to counter Marcy Kaptur's initiative. Oliver offered three possibilities: (1) the HQ of one of the chicken producers is located in Womack's constituency, (2) Womack is on record for having received significant amoungs of campaign sponsoring from chicken producers, or (3) Womack is both sexually attracted to chicken and envious of (hence acting against the interests of) chicken farmers who 'get to spend more time with' the chickens. Oliver closed the three possibilities by saying: 'But I don't know, this is all purely speculative.' In other words, anyone who opposes Kaptur's initiative is more likely than not to act on a conflict of interests, of which (3) is both the least likely and the most offensive shorthand for 'is implicated in a conflict of interests'. (talk) 12:35, 23 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
    • I fixed the incorrect quote. I don't see what's wrong in the rest of your post; I think it's pretty obvious that these people aren't actually having sex with chickens, and I've focused the piece more on what effect his words had on Wikipedia. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 23:25, 23 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • MastCell made this comment, not Mastcell -- can someone fix that? It's confusing. ekips39 (talk) 04:01, 25 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Superb writing, kudos to all involved! Maury Markowitz (talk) 14:43, 30 May 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Perhaps it is an editing nightmare for Wikipedia staff, but John Oliver used his comedy to inform and rally the masses for a good cause. So maybe "chicken fucker" isn't accurate for corrupt representatives who favor big business with mafia like tactics over the people they are supposed to represent, but "fucker" certainly applies. Quite frankly, if it is difficult to keep up with the cleanup, I think Wikipedia staff shouldn't stress about it. If these types of edits remain online for awhile, it will simply serve to help inform readers of the quality of the representative holding office. Thank you. (talk) 02:34, 14 July 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I agree with the point of view, that wiki is here to help people to orient in world of information - and I think, when for so many people is important to have mention of something on page about person who should be (and obviously is not) working for public interest, than I don't understand need to censor them. And if this is again some rule, than then should be discussed that rule instead, maybe. That could be way how to not waste time of our volunteers... Personally, I do not like how author totally passed J.Oliver's motivation and intentions (to help real people and to improve real world) and put this (virtual) tool (wikipedia project) on piedestal as most sacred thing.Fraktik (talk) 18:49, 16 July 2019 (UTC)[reply]
  • This article reeks of partisanship rather than upholding the sanctity of Wikipedia and journalism. John Olliver is slightly misquoted, painted in a poor light, and the article suggests that his statements are untrue without actually providing information to the contrary. I can agree with keeping vulgarity off of Wikipedia pages though. Thanks to everyone who works hard to keep Wikipedia clean, I apologize that the mess of the masses made it's way to your doorstep. 15 July 2020 (UTC)


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