The John Oliver Effect: Using Political Satire to Encourage Critical-Thinking Skills in Information Literacy Instruction

Sebastian Krutkowski

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The polarised nature of today’s information environment compromises our capacity for critical thinking, narrows down our political horizons, and makes us less likely to relate to people with other beliefs. Incoming first-year university students are often not fully aware of how incomplete and biased the information they get, search for and access online is. They are building up a filter bubble and risk carrying it into their university work. How do we address this? In Britain, there is a saying that “many a true word is spoken in jest”. In a time of significant political polarisation, in which students are increasingly exposed to misinformation and lies, the “truth” is indeed often found in comedy. Under certain conditions, discussed in the course of this chapter, political satire can be an effective source for learning—especially by engaging students in critical thinking, reflection, and dialogue about the social and political dimensions of information literacy. The pedagogical rationale for using satire is based on a review of literature on using popular culture in library instruction as well as the author’s experience of delivering a series of workshops on digital literacy at the University of Roehampton in London. After three semesters of teaching, it has been observed that attendees positively respond to the use of humor in library sessions, especially to videos from the HBO weekly show Last Week Tonight, hosted by British comedian John Oliver. The selection of excerpts used for in-class discussion is informed by the instructional humor processing theory (IHPT), which states that choosing humor related to instructional content will positively correlate with student learning (Wanzer et al, 2010). This chapter explores how students benefit from the reflexive aspects of humor and presents ideas of how they could apply the satirical form themselves, for example, in appraising information sources and making more informed choices when engaging with digital platforms and services.

© 2019, The Author(s). This is an open-access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 3.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLibraries Promoting Reflective Dialogue in a Time of Political Polarization
EditorsAndrea Baer, Robert Schroeder, Ellysa Cahoy
Place of PublicationChicago
PublisherACRL Publications
Number of pages28
ISBN (Print)978-0-8389-4652-7
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019

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