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Unprecedented, Unparalleled, Unmatched: The Luben Phenomenon

Image via Luben

Luben is a satiric channel that posts videos, articles, and memes that mock Greek public life, including reality TV, news fails, embarrassing moments in sports, and—most importantly—politics. Created 10 years ago, it always had a reputation for leftist content, with its name inspired by the Marxist term lumpenproletariat, which appears in The Communist Manifesto as the lowest stratum of the working class. However, the creators’ political beliefs never stop them from making fun of politicians and political parties across the ideological spectrum.

Today, Luben has gained immense influence over Greek youth, as people use it as a news-learning platform rather than just a source of comedy. Luben’s commentary on an event can result in unpredictable yet huge changes, such as shifting the entire trajectory of a politician’s career or making someone go ridiculously viral overnight. For example, as an April Fools’ joke, Luben announced that it is planning to run as a candidate in the upcoming 2023 Greek elections. The public reaction to its comedic election ad suggests that a considerable amount of people would genuinely have supported it.

Should we be alarmed by the political power of satirical platforms and their implications for political education? Or is the ability to spread political propaganda a universal right that everyone owns in the digital world? My initial answers are yes and, inevitably, yes. First, the educational system needs to be updated in order to build the critical thinking skills of young people—future voters—so that they won’t become victims of propaganda. Second, the digital world can either be fully controlled or completely open to any opinion. We have to stop pretending that media censorship mutes individuals’ opinions—much less exterminates them. How we learn to interpret different views can turn an online opinion into something substantial, with real impact on our real lives.

I should define my view of “political power” in the context of satire. Another way to put it would be gaining public appeal, or public approval, which might sound a lot different than politics. But perhaps these two terms are connected more deeply than politics and the facade of officialism. 

Luben has earned its place in the political sphere by gradually building a reputation of saying what used to remain unsaid and ridiculing people of real power, proving that nothing is really that serious and no one is really that important. In fact, the organs of our society that are supposed to be efficient, responsible, and respected are the ones who make the gravest mistakes at the cost of others.

Luben doesn’t do anything more than shed light on the mistakes and failures of Greek public life. It is the repetitive nature of its content that can turn the platform into a source of political propaganda. Since there is no misinformation or additional efforts for education, Luben calls for critical thinking while presenting the sad truth. Browse their online platforms—Instagram, Luben TV, or Facebook—and you’ll see for yourself that watching Luben feels like talking to a leftist friend.

So, why should we raise an alarm in the first place? We shouldn’t forget how seemingly harmless sources can propel people into forming harmful beliefs. Luben might be a satirical source that does not outwardly urge people to take action against the government, but it is unable to stop a fourteen-year-old who watches its content from vandalizing the capital or throwing a rock at a politician’s head. 

Due to Luben’s appeal among Greek youth, its cynical political humor, if not first filtered by the viewer, can fundamentally change the way young people engage with politics. Further, Luben’s unrestricted commentary might be considered excessive and can propel people into endorsing more right-leaning beliefs. Nonetheless, young people’s reactions depend on their own critical abilities and knowledge of politics. The fact that Greek youth rely on Luben to learn the latest political news shows how unprepared Greece is to responsibly educate future generations.

In order to appreciate political satire, people need to have a background of political knowledge. Humor is complicated enough on its own. Combining it with politics elevates the difficulty of truly comprehending its intent. Therefore, Luben fans who are politically knowledgeable will not be negatively affected by satire, whereas those who already don’t know that much about politics might be even more distanced from it by seeing everything political as humorous.

In that sense, education is important, as it always is, and as it always will be.

To me, preserving Luben requires mastery of media, journalism, and comedy. Today, because of its augmented reputation, Luben has the responsibility of being accurate, informed, and therefore, informative. And its fun nature helps more people pay attention to politics.

Comedy is a great mechanism to investigate information. Online comedy works even better, as creators have access to more tools in order to portray their jokes in the best way possible. Yes, sometimes online information needs to be shorter than, say, a formal written piece. However, done responsibly, Luben’s comedy can actually be a force for public education.

Consider past examples of Greek satiric platforms that transformed people’s relationships with politics and made audiences question the extent to which the sad Greek reality can be turned into a mockery. 

The Radio Arvyla premiered in October 2008 as an ambitious project, who entrusted the Ant1 channel’s afternoon slot to Antonis Kanakis and his renowned team. From 2010 to 2018, The Radio Arvyla was a mainstay of late-night television, achieving legendary ratings, even exceeding 40 percent. The show targeted most of the country’s political figures, and the team even had the unprecedented freedom to make caustic comments about the channel’s own personalities. With this privilege and essentially no restrictive framework, they excelled on the channel for about a decade.

The show, with some mild alteration of its members, is ongoing, and although its audience remains the same as 10 years ago, it hasn’t given up on its responsibility to educate people about the topics it satirizes. On March 23, for example, with the national elections only two months away, The Radio Arvyla spent, with all seriousness, 36 minutes explaining the different types of votes one can submit during the elections. The cause of that discussion was a comedic—but very real—newsflash of goats blocking the runway of a Greek airport. 

That is the epitome of political satire done professionally: when a hilarious event provokes a deeper conversation that reflects the flaws of reality—in this case, Greek politics. The Radio Arvyla—eloquent, factual, and infinitely comedic—educates for the sake of education and not propaganda, which is the trick that makes the audience engage and appreciate the show—and any well-made satirical show for that matter.

Still, like Luben, The Radio Arvyla desensitizes audiences to politics and the gravity of political crises. If comedians make fun of all serious topics and audiences mock the mistakes of their government instead of taking active measures to oppose them, a problem can arise.

So, there you go: Luben, the potent voice and opinionated mind of defiant Greek youth. Probably the most successful and influential phenomenon of Greek media since 2012. The only platform that can make a meme out of a dog running on a football field, the Greek president’s favorite food, and the judges of a reality TV fashion show, then pretend to run for elections—and win.