Patriot Act Is Not Afraid of Silicon Valley

Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix show goes further than even John Oliver in skewering technology.

Hasan Minhaj standing with his arms raised on the stage of his show, Patriot Act.
Hasan Minhaj on Patriot Act.
Cara Howe/Netflix

On a recent episode of Patriot Act, “Content Moderation and Free Speech,” Hasan Minhaj walks onstage, framed by graphics flipping through images of Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, floppy disks, and the Facebook thumbs-up. He soon asks the audience—and the viewers watching online—to think back to a time when we were excited to connect to the entire world through the internet.

Today, Minhaj explains, we’d prefer to log off. But social media is unavoidable: “Facebook already has over 2 billion users. That’s as big as Christianity and bigger than Hinduism and Islam, although Facebook’s Messenger is probably weaker” than Islam’s messenger, the Prophet Mohammed, he quips. Minhaj spends the episode discussing social media’s myriad problems, like online harassment. He walks us through the ways these platforms’ executives defend their sites by pointing to their armies of content moderators, as well as their disingenuous invocations of free speech and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the legislation that allows sites to moderate their content without being held liable for it. Minhaj concludes: “Relying on the good faith of tech companies to regulate themselves? That ain’t working. ’Cause with the way things are right now, social media gets to be platform in the streets and publisher in the sheets.”

The show, which returned to Netflix on Sunday night with an episode about internet censorship in China, uses a familiar format: deeply researched dives into topics of political and social relevance sprinkled with playful asides that poke fun at everything from Call Me by Your Name to ophthalmology. But Minhaj does more than make tech the subject of an occasional episode. Instead, Patriot Act makes tech a constant theme throughout the show.

Each of Patriot Act’s episodes takes on one topic, and four of the first eight installments have directly confronted questionable actions by tech companies. First, Minhaj took on Amazon’s disquieting monopoly power, laying out the company’s practice of delaying present profit to buy market share in an endless number of businesses. (He also dug into Amazon’s antitrust issues and its treatment of its employees.) In another episode, while excoriating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “sales pitch” to the West, Minhaj took a segment to specifically call out tech companies—the comedian cited Uber, Slack, Wag, DoorDash, Fanatics, and WeWork—that accept significant investment from Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia and Uber are both places women drivers don’t feel safe. Too real?” he says. And on the coworking space company, Minhaj comments: “WeWork won’t let [employees] expense meat. … So you’re against slaughterhouses, unless they’re in Yemen?” His most recent episode mapped out China’s approach to internet censorship and the ways activists work around it using memes, creative language, and hashtags. Minhaj warns, “Yes, websites like Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are all blocked, but no one cares because they all have great Chinese doppelgangers. … Life under censorship is pretty good, if you’re just taking selfies, being thick on Youku, or shitposting on Weibo.”

It’s not that comedians haven’t taken on tech before. Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah have tackled Facebook and other pressing technology-related stories in the headlines. John Oliver even helped take the wonky topic of net neutrality mainstream in June 2014, when his 13-minute segment on the topic helped bring more than 45,000 comments to the Federal Communications Commission website. Before The Nightly Show was canceled, Larry Wilmore hosted panels on crime-fighting robots, the Apple Watch, and the ethics of labor practices behind high-tech device manufacturing.

Minhaj’s debut episodes have built on this tradition and broken new ground. He takes technology seriously as a political force, but also incorporates humor and commentary about its pervasiveness into his coverage of other subjects. To demonstrate the unhipness of the founder of the streetwear brand Supreme, he asks us to imagine that the founder of Snapchat is the little boy from Matilda who, in an infamous scene, is forced to eat an insane amount of chocolate cake. He’s also not afraid to take on Netflix itself. He’s discussed the streaming service’s dependence on Amazon Web Services. In Patriot Act’s opening montage, Minhaj’s animated shadow stands in front of the White House, watching protesters with signs that, among other things, read: “Where’s Anonymous”—referring to the hacking collective—and “Occupy Netflix.”

A still from the animated intro to Patriot Act, in which Hasan Minhaj stands in front of protest signs that read, for example, "Occupy Netflix," "What is internet?" and "Where's Anonymous?"
Screen grab from Netflix

On Sunday, he even wrestled with the company’s decision to pull his episode about Crown Prince Mohammed offline in Saudi Arabia: “This isn’t about just censoring one episode of a TV show. It’s about the precedent. Because as tech companies keep expanding, they’re going to keep running into more vague censorship laws—laws that can allow governments to pull any content at any time.”

Researchers have found that Minhaj’s type of political satire can educate audiences, especially those who are not normally interested in a particular issue. Amy Becker, a communications professor at Loyola University Maryland, says that these shows can make viewers more cynical toward targeted leaders, but they’ve also been found to increase viewers’ confidence in their own personal political agency: “Sometimes the comedy shows have a better ability to break these technical things down into really accessible bits of information and heuristics. So you go: Oh, OK.” In one study, she and Georgetown University professor Leticia Bode studied how much viewers learned from watching John Oliver’s 2014 episode of Last Week Tonight about net neutrality, compared with an ABC news report on the same topic. (The control group lucked out and got to watch the music video for Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.”) During the episode, Oliver pleads with viewers to look past dull FCC policies and cable companies’ confusing positions, interspersing jokes about Usain Bolt and dingoes. “We found that watching a political commentary segment was just as good as a comparable news segment in teaching people about the net neutrality issue,” Becker said. She added that the show appeared to bring more female discussants to a traditionally “male-heavy issue,” a sign that comedy, in general, could help diversify debates about technical questions.

With his show back on Netflix after a short hiatus, Minhaj doesn’t plan to let up on the tech industry. He taunts in a recent video, “A lot of tech CEOs and entrepreneurs are going to publicly apologize to you right now because there’s a reckoning coming. In the event that that happens, you should definitely trust them. Why would they ever lie to you?”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.