This isn’t a new phenomenon but today the NY Times has a story about China’s use of western bloggers to spread propaganda. YouTube requires content creators to identify if they have commercial relationships that drive their videos. But in the case of western video bloggers in China, possible connections to the state usually go unmentioned.
The videos have a casual, homespun feel. But on the other side of the camera often stands a large apparatus of government organizers, state-controlled news media and other official amplifiers — all part of the Chinese government’s widening attempts to spread pro-Beijing messages around the planet.
State-run news outlets and local governments have organized and funded pro-Beijing influencers’ travel, according to government documents and the creators themselves. They have paid or offered to pay the creators. They have generated lucrative traffic for the influencers by sharing videos with millions of followers on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
With official media outlets’ backing, the creators can visit and film in parts of China where the authorities have obstructed foreign journalists’ reporting.
Some of these bloggers deny receiving money for their content but it appears that many of the journeys they take within China are funded by state media. They are essentially western influencers spreading a particular view of China to the outside world.
In effect, Beijing is using platforms like Twitter and YouTube, which the government blocks inside China to prevent the uncontrolled spread of information, as propaganda megaphones for the wider world.
“China is the new super-abuser that has arrived in global social media,” said Eric Liu, a former content moderator for Chinese social media. “The goal is not to win, but to cause chaos and suspicion until there is no real truth.”
Video blogger Matthew Tye, who lived in China for 10 years, refers to these bloggers as “white monkeys,” though you don’t have to be white to be one. Basically, any foreign face is enough to get you a job in the media in China. In fact, Tye used to be a “white monkey” himself before he changed his mind about China and eventually moved back to the US. Now he tracks trends in Chinese propaganda for his YouTube channel.
Last month, Tye did a video about the way some of these bloggers get hired. They are first sent a generic request to do some kind of travel or promotional video. Maybe the offer is an all-expenses paid trip to a resort location within China. If they accept that offer then they are given more opportunities. In Tye’s case, the person who reached out to him asked if he’d be willing to post a COVID informational video on his site while approval for his travel to a resort island was pending. Tye then negotiated a deal in which he would be paid $2,000 to post the Chinese video which claimed COVID originated in North American deer. (He didn’t post it, he was just trying to see how much they would agree to pay.)
Tye then got another offer from China to do political content in his own voice on a topic selected by the person who wanted to hire him. Tye asked for examples of the type of video that had been funded before and was sent a link to a clip by Lee Barrett, one of the bloggers mentioned in the NY Times’ story:
Millions have watched Lee and Oli Barrett’s YouTube dispatches from China. The father and son duo visit hotels in exotic locales, tour out-of-the-way villages, sample delicacies in bustling markets and undergo traditional ear cleanings.
The Barretts are part of a crop of new social media personalities who paint cheery portraits of life as foreigners in China — and also hit back at criticisms of Beijing’s authoritarian governance, its policies toward ethnic minorities and its handling of the coronavirus.
Here’s Tye’s video about the hiring of western bloggers. Watch to the end and you’ll see he catches another foreign blogger agreeing to accept Chinese cash to have his video used on state media.
The problem with stuff like this is it’s not labeled as propaganda or state media on YouTube so casual viewers have no idea what they’re getting.
Finally, here’s a bonus video from last week in which Tye describes a new trend he discovered on Tik Tok. There are a host of pretty Chinese “teachers” teaching English speakers how to say “F**k you!” and other phrases. And it gets weirder from there as all of this is clearly being managed and coordinated based on a script which eventually leads back to sharing CCP propaganda about what things are really like in China.