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.