On Sunday, comedian Aziz Ansari set the Twitter world ablaze, and not just in laughter.
The actor and comedian of Parks and Recreation fame used Twitter to respond to Rupert Murdoch’s assertion that while “maybe” most of the world’s Muslim population is peaceful, they must “recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer.”
Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) January 10, 2015
Ansari spouted a stream of sardonic, often hilarious tweets at the News Corp CEO, asking “Rup” to supply Ansari’s own family in North Carolina with a step-by-step guide to eradicating extremism. Ansari also turned the tables on Murdoch, asking why he’s not claiming responsibility for pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Here's a small sampling:
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) January 12, 2015
It was an intelligent and pointed critique, wrapped around a humorous perspective. That’s why Ansari’s tweets might go beyond funny—they could affect political discourse.
Two studies in particular show why these types of political tweets by comedians can make a difference. In a 1978 study out of Purdue University, researchers assessed the impact of both hostile and non-hostile humor on physical aggression. In the experiment, participants were subjected to either negative or positive criticism. Then, they were shown either disparaging or non-disparaging cartoons. In general, those who received positive criticism exhibited less aggression than those who received negative criticism. But, of those who had more insulting critiques hurled their way, the people who looked at the non-disparaging cartoons were less aggressive than those who were exposed to hostile humor. So the cartoon had more weight than the insults.
Ansari spouted a stream of sardonic, often hilarious tweets at the News Corp CEO, asking "Rup" to supply Ansari’s own family in North Carolina with a step-by-step guide to eradicating extremism.
Translation: Humor affects behavior, sometimes more than personal opinion.
Applying this single study to Ansari’s case is admittedly a bit of stretch, but a 2009 study provides an important bridge. This report analyzed the effect of Internet humor on political opinion, and it found that social networks provide a “point of entry” for audiences to share their own political views with the world.
Based on two skits by ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham, researchers examined how viewers' emotions and social context affect their appreciation for entertainment. Specifically, they looked at Dunham’s controversial Achmed the Dead Terrorist character, an unsuccessful suicide bomber—and, in my opinion, a pretty offensive character—who often plays to anti-Muslim sentiment for laughs. But the humor can also disarm an audience, leaving them more open to evaluate their own views on terrorism and Islam. Since audience members are already Dunham fans, researchers say, they’re more willing to engage with some of Achmed the Dead Terrorist's more nuanced points—namely, United States military intervention in Iraq—without getting defensive. From there, social networks like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter help encourage discourse.
In the case of Ansari’s tweet, we can deduce that a) his lighthearted, funny approach to Murdoch’s own message might actually win over people who would otherwise be on the fence about whether Muslims must “recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer” and b) thanks to the Twitter medium, that online audience is further encouraged to participate in a discourse. Even if that means a simple retweet.