John Oliver to Edward Snowden: 'No One Knows Who the Fuck You Are'
Oliver gives Snowden some much-needed real talk. Will it change anything?
Screengrab: Last Week Tonight
Last week, there was no episode of John Oliver's massively popular Last Week Tonight. That's because he spent twice the amount of time working on what aired last night—a takedown of NSA spying and the Patriot Act reauthorization. In doing so, Oliver is hoping people give more of a shit when the message is delivered from his mouth, rather than Edward Snowden's.
That's the crux, really, of the entire episode. Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have done a poor job of selling the American people on the idea that mass surveillance is bad. Can Oliver make them care? Here's how he opened the show:
"I realize most people would rather have a conversation about literally any other topic," he said. "But the fact is, it is vital we have a discussion about this now."
Oliver's show has taken off because he's got a knack for holding people's attention on wonky topics. His formula—investigate the hell out of something using a staff of former magazine reporters and then boil it down into one smart, funny tirade—is no secret, but nowhere is it laid out more bare than in this week's Snowden episode. Oliver successfully rebranded net neutrality as "Preventing Cable Company Fuckery," can he do the same with mass surveillance?
After all, the United States is not made up of people who revere the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU. The average American does not read The Intercept (its middling traffic numbers tell us that). America is not Reddit, it's not even the internet. America isn't even Hollywood, and it for-damn-sure isn't the documentaries category of the Oscars.
That's why, roughly 20 minutes into the piece, Oliver flies to Moscow to meet with Snowden in person to give him some much-needed real talk. The best, most important part of John Oliver's episode is when he tells Snowden that "no one cares."
"You might be able to go home because no one knows who the fuck you are or what the fuck you're doing"
Snowden has said, several times, that he feels like he's changed the world, that he's proud that NSA surveillance wasn't swept under the rug, that he's glad this wasn't a "three day story" that went away. He repeats it in the Oliver interview.
"When I saw that everybody in the world said, 'whoa, this is a problem, we have to do something about this,' it felt like vindication," Snowden said. "Even in America … if you ask the American people to make tough decisions, to think about hard problems, they'll surprise you."
I can see why Snowden might feel that way. He's regularly asked to give talks to schoolchildren and webcam into security conferences. His leaked documents are still creating scoops for Glenn Greenwald and the Intercept, a news publication that almost certainly wouldn't exist without Snowden. Citizenfour won an Oscar. An Oscar! When he does a Reddit AMA, it skyrockets to the top of the front page.
Remember who Snowden was: An anonymous government contractor plugging away at his keyboard at a behemoth organization. Overnight, literally (as is masterfully shown in Citizenfour) he went from being a nobody to being the most important person in civil liberties and security circles. It's no surprise that he hasn't faded out of those rings of consciousness.
But then Oliver pulls out his MacBook and shows him a video of person after person that his crew interviewed in Times Square. Here's what they say:
"I have no idea who Edward Snowden is;" "He sold some information to people;" "He revealed some information that shouldn't have been revealed;" and "Edward Snowden revealed a bunch of secrets into WikiLeaks."
"You might be able to go home because no one knows who the fuck you are or what the fuck you're doing," Oliver tells Snowden. It's harsh, and it's actually kind of hard to watch. Snowden takes it well, but you can tell he's surprised and maybe a bit hurt.
Well, good. Snowden has effectively riled the people who were already fighting for surveillance reform. More revelations are always going to make for good fodder for security journalists and more opportunities for the ACLU to sue the government. That's one way to push back on the surveillance state. Another way is to turn people's apathy and ignorance around. On that count, Snowden and Greenwald have failed.
It's not their fault. This is extremely dense stuff. The NSA's reach into every aspect of data collection is all-encompassing and very hard to fathom even if you understand the ins and outs of how information travels around the world and across servers. The authority for what's been done is baked into Executive Orders and buried in thousands of pages of documents and hidden in secret court decisions.
So, while Snowden has become a hero to those who care—and that may give him the false illusion that those groups make up the majority of America—he's faded into the background for everyone else, if they ever knew who he was in the first place. The masses are not writing letters to their congressmen about the upcoming expiration of the Patriot Act; they're rallying around things that can be explained in a couple of sentences.
And that's the point of this episode. Oliver spent almost no time explaining the ins-and-outs of how mass surveillance works. Instead, he cut to the chase: The government has your dick pics, because terrorists.
Then, Oliver shows Snowden that the same people who have no clue who the fuck he is care very much about their sexts not being snapped up by the government. Snowden does his part in explaining that there are many ways the government can and does collect your dick pics.
Whether this really kicks off the national conversation Snowden has been waiting for, I have no idea. But Oliver, with his no bullshit approach, has as good a chance as anyone.