The topic surrounding China and its interference into Western democracies through the use of propaganda has been a recurrent subject of discourse within the last few years, often labelled as a major worldwide threat. And now, social media and the internet are both argued to be big contributors to this potential threat.
In recent years, there has been a lot of speculation on whether the Chinese government may be using internet personas and content creators as a means to create pro-China content, specifically through YouTube. But what incentive would the Chinese government have for this, and just how common is the interference of political propaganda within internet culture?
In June 2019, Canadian YouTuber and The Washington Post’s Global Opinions Columnist J.J. McCullough posted a video on YouTube, titled They tried to get me to post Chinese propaganda. In the video, he claims to have received an email from a man named Franco, saying the following:
Just watched your videos, and we thought it would be a great to place our content, we wonder if you want to help us upload this video to your YouTube channel?
And for that, we will support your YouTube channel for $500
Pls feel free to email us back if you have any questions or requests.
McCullough goes on to explain that the video attached to the email featured anti-Falun Gong propaganda, a religious movement that the Chinese communist party has been trying to eliminate since the late 90s. What was most shocking for McCullough though, was the lack of research behind Franco’s email—McCullough has previously written a number of articles for The Washington Post criticising the Chinese government.
McCullough followed up with the email to investigate the story further for himself, but explained to his viewers that he had no intention of actually participating in this, criticising the “endless cycle of disinformation” created by political propaganda.
Screen Shot spoke to Hannah Bailey, DPhil student in Social Data Science at the Oxford Internet Institute, whose research specialises in China’s use of state-sponsored digital disinformation. When asked about what may motivate a government like China’s to seek content collaborations and agreements with influential internet personas globally, she explains that “a lot of authoritarian states have a vested interest in shifting international narratives.”
“They’re trying to really position themselves in a positive light, because they are quite aware of the fact that international audiences don’t have a particularly favourable opinion of China,” Bailey continues.
A recent investigation conducted by The Times claims that British YouTuber duo Lee and Oli Barret, who are known for their pro-China content, have had some of their videos funded by Chinese Radio International, a state-owned broadcaster. Some of the duo’s videos include titles like Western media LIES about China, There is SO MUCH we can Learn from China // 中国有太多值得我们学习的地方, and We Can Live a Much Better Life in China // 在中国我们可以过上更好的生活, to name a few.
They have since responded to The Times’ investigation on their channel, denying being funded by Chinese Radio International but admitting to making branded sponsored content as most influencers do, which they say is not affiliated with the government.
In one particular video, titled Xinjiang – Let’s Talk About It, Lee Barret says that he suspects the Xinjiang camps are used as re-educational facilities, although it is important to highlight he discloses that he has no evidence of this, and it is purely his speculation. This, however, was published at a time when the Xinjiang camps were receiving global media attention around their treatment of Uighur Muslims, with multiple reports disclosing information about forced labour.
The speculation around whether these YouTubers are promoting pro-China content and propaganda is therefore not uncalled for—after all, they have been frequently accused of this. Lee and Oli Barret’s case is also not unique; they are part of a much larger group of influencers who are known to create distinct ‘pro-China’ content.
When asked what motives these influencers may have behind the creation of their content, Bailey explains that “maybe these YouTubers are more unaware of the problems in engaging with and promoting the Chinese government in this way” but instead “just see this as something to achieve monetary outcome.”
“The content of our channel is completely independent. We choose what content we will produce, we decide what we are going to say in that content, we decide what we are going to publish on our channel,” Lee Barret explains in one of their videos. It is, of course, difficult for us to pinpoint whether they are being funded for certain and by whom, as these are accusations they frequently dispel. But there is a lot of existing evidence suggesting that the Chinese government is using the internet to infiltrate propaganda on a global scale.
“China’s kind of new to the international influence operations. They only recently started using a lot of international social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter in the last 5 or so years. But they definitely made their presence on their own platforms through various forms” clarifies Bailey.
She goes on to explain how the tools used to propagate this “have become really sophisticated.” For example, China is notorious for its 50 Cent Army, a group of state-backed internet commentators (whose numbers were proclaimed to range from 500,000 to two million), who were reportedly hired to manipulate public opinion online for the benefit of the Chinese Communist Party. Very similarly, just last year, Twitter reportedly purged 170,000 accounts linked to a Chinese influence campaign. The idea of using YouTubers to infiltrate propaganda online is therefore not that surprising.
But why would anyone try and cultivate propaganda through YouTube? Perhaps this is an attempt to reach a younger demographic. It also highlights just how influential the internet can be (especially when it comes to YouTube and its infamous conspiracy theories) and how much of us are swayed into it.
We live in a digital age, more precisely during a time of severe online misinformation that is largely caused by social media and the speed in which content is spread. So remember to be constructive and critical of everything that you consume online, be that Chinese propaganda or not.
When I say that I love TikTok (as true as it is) I always like to add that I’ve also learned to take everything with a pinch of salt, especially on social media, almost as if I’m trying to convince myself that this weird TikTok obsession I have developed can only become unhealthy if I forget the app’s numerous ethical issues. That’s why, just this once, for the sake of my argument, I will ask you all to leave your preconceptions about the app at the door. This is now a safe space so relax, and let me blow your mind with this new trend I’ve stumbled upon during one of my nightly TikTok sessions.
For those of you who don’t know, TikTok is what the app is named internationally, while Douyin, which means ‘shaking sound’ in Chinese, is the app used by most users in mainland China. Technically, Douyin is the same platform as what we know as TikTok, it is owned by ByteDance but separated from the rest of the world.
TikTok and Douyin have almost the same user interface but no access to each other’s content. Their servers are each based in the market where the respective app is available. The two products are similar, but features are not identical. Douyin includes an in-video search feature that can search by people’s face for more videos of them and other features such as buying, booking hotels and making geo-tagged reviews.
Often, while scrolling through my For You page, I see videos about the ‘Chinese TikTok’ and how amazing it is. Some people have even created video tutorials online showing how international users can download Douyin. And yet, for some reason, I never thought of Chinese users who might try to upload content on TikTok instead of Douyin (and succeed).
TikTok influencer @funcolle is one of them—a quick look at the creator’s content makes it clear that all her videos are filmed in China. With less than 35 TikTok videos posted on her account, @funcolle has amassed more than 940,000 followers and 15.4 million likes. What’s so special about her account, you ask? Each video posted by the creator consists of an ultra-short crime episode (usually no longer than 30 seconds) that users then have to solve and discuss in the comment section.
Now, hear me out before you decide to delve into @funcolle’s twisted world. All videos are in Chinese with English subtitles, and as far as I know, none of them is linked to another. The filming is impressive compared to what other TikTok videos have to offer and the acting… well, it’s over-the-top but you’ll get used to it soon enough.
Because explaining the ins and outs of @funcolle’s content without showing you some examples would be pretty boring, let me introduce you to some of her most viewed TikToks.
Take this video for example, which has 2.5 million likes and more than 13,700 comments. The whole point behind watching this TikTok is for you as a user to find out what is wrong in this situation. The caption, which reads “Will they both be in danger?” aims to push fellow TikTokers to look for clues and comment what they think is suspicious.
If you watch this video for the first time without knowing what you’re supposed to do, you may think that the whole scene is slightly strange and miss the point. But watch it again, try to concentrate on those 30 seconds and you’ll find that the man in the lift is gripping the arm of the woman on the left and that she looks scared.
Watch it another time and you’ll probably be able to solve the mystery: the woman on the left is being held by that man, and by asking the other woman if she lives on the 19th floor when clearly she is getting off at the 15th floor, the woman is only trying to tell her that she’s the one who lives on the 19th floor and that she is in danger.
Although taking the time to concentrate on this specific video is part of the fun, scrolling through the comments section is definitely my favourite part. First, because I usually miss some details and like to be helped by close to 14,000 people but also because it makes me realise that I am not the only one obsessed with this kitsch detective series. Did you notice that even though the man tells the woman that he will cook for her tonight, she is holding two boxes of takeaway food? Me neither, but I read it in the comments section.
Many users who ended up finding @funcolle’s content on their For You page ask whether her videos are only short clips of a full-length movie, while others dispute more details of the intrigue.
In this skit, your first reaction was probably to assume that the man in the white t-shirt was trying to film under the woman’s skirt by putting his phone down on the floor, yet the man in the yellow t-shirt ended up getting in trouble. If you look closely (or if, like me, you end up in the comments section once more for help), you’ll notice that when the woman asked the man to press the button to her floor, he pressed it without asking which floor she meant. This implies that he already knew which floor she lives on and had been stalking her. Plot twist, right?
For this one, things get tougher, meaning I didn’t get anything that was happening at first. Two women arrive in what looks like a hotel room. While the first woman jumps on the bed claiming that she’s tired, the second one comes in looking like she smells something. She then proceeds to look around, notices that the showerhead is still warm and dripping when it shouldn’t.
By watching the video again, you’ll find that although the two women arrive in what should be a perfect room, in the toilets, the loo roll is already opened and the seat is up. In the room, the coffee machine has recently been used and some users have noticed a pair of shoes behind the bedroom’s curtain at 12 seconds. All these details seem to suggest that someone uninvited has been in the room and that both women are in danger.
I could go on and on with other videos, but I’ll let you do that on your own. Enjoy, and don’t get too obsessed!