BEIJING (NYTIMES) – Millions have watched Lee and Oli Barrett’s YouTube dispatches from China. The father and son visit hotels in exotic locales, tour out-of-the-way villages, sample delicacies in bustling markets and undergo traditional ear cleanings.
“We are on the outskirts of Shanghai today at the most incredible hotel we’ve ever stayed at,” Oli says in one video, just before a drone camera filming them soars to reveal a luxury complex inside a massive former quarry.
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.
The videos have a casual, homespun feel. But on the other side of the camera often stands a large apparatus of government organisers, 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 organised 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 on social media.
With official media outlets’ backing, the creators can visit and film in parts of China where authorities have obstructed foreign journalists’ reporting.
Most of the YouTubers have lived in China for years and say their aim is to counter the West’s increasingly negative perceptions of the country. They decide what goes into their videos, they say, not the Communist Party.
But even if the creators do not see themselves as propaganda tools, Beijing is using them that way. Chinese diplomats and representatives have shown their videos at news conferences and promoted their creations on social media. Together, six of the most popular influencers have garnered over 130 million views on YouTube and more than 1.1 million subscribers.
Sympathetic foreign voices are part of Beijing’s increasingly ambitious efforts to shape the world conversation about China. The Communist Party has marshalled diplomats and state news outlets to carry its narratives and drown out criticism, often with the help of armies of shadowy accounts that amplify their posts.
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 Mr 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.”
The state behind the camera
Mr Raz Gal-Or started making funny videos when he was a college student in Beijing. Now, the young Israeli brings his millions of subscribers along as he interviews both ordinary people and fellow expatriates about their lives in China.
In a video this spring, Mr Gal-Or visits cotton fields in Xinjiang to counter allegations of forced labour.
“It’s totally normal here,” he declares after enjoying kebabs with some workers. “People are nice, doing their job, living their life.”
His videos do not mention the internal government documents, firsthand testimonials and visits by journalists that indicate that authorities have held hundreds of thousands of Xinjiang’s Muslims in re-education camps.
They also omit his and his family’s business ties to the Chinese state.
The chairman of Mr Gal-Or’s video company, YChina, is his father Amir, an investor whose fund is backed by the government-run China Development Bank, the fund’s website says.
YChina has had two state-owned news outlets as clients, according to the website of Innonation, a company founded by Mr Amir Gal-Or. Innonation manages shared office spaces and hosts YChina’s office in Beijing.
In emails with The New York Times, Mr Raz Gal-Or said that YChina had no “business contracts” with state news agencies and that Innonation’s website was “inaccurate”. He said no official entities paid or guided him in Xinjiang.
He said his Xinjiang video series was about “people’s lives, well-beings and dreams”. “Those who perceive it as political I am sure have their own agenda,” he added.
‘Doing a job’
Other creators acknowledge that they have accepted financial support from state entities, though they say this does not make them mouthpieces for Beijing.
Mr Kirk Apesland, a Canadian living in China, calls his channel Gweilo 60. “Gweilo” is Cantonese slang for foreigner. He rejects news of repression in Xinjiang and cites his own happy experiences to contest the idea that China’s people are oppressed.
After the Times contacted Mr Apesland, he posted a video titled “New York Times vs Gweilo 60”. In it, he acknowledges that he accepts free hotel stays and payments from city and provincial authorities. He compares it to being a pitchman for local tourism.
“Are there fees for what I do? Of course,” he says. “I’m doing a job. I’m putting the videos out to hundreds of thousands of people.”
Mr Lee Barrett makes a similar acknowledgement in one of his videos. “They pay for travel, they pay for accommodation, they pay for food,” he says. “However, they don’t tell us what we have to say by any means.” Mr Oli Barrett did not respond to a request for comment.
According to a document featured in a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China’s internet regulator paid about US$30,000 (S$41,000) to a media company as part of a campaign called “A Date With China”, which used “foreign internet celebrities” to promote the government’s success in alleviating poverty.
The research institute, which is funded by the Australian and US governments and companies including military contractors, has published several reports on China’s coercive policies in Xinjiang.
When the YouTubers travel on the state dime, official organisers shape what they see and do. Not long ago, Mr Lee Barrett, an influencer named Matt Galat and two creators from Mexico held a livestreamed discussion about a trip they took to Xi’an with the state broadcaster China Radio International.
The organisers asked Mr Galat to deliver a speech praising a place he had yet to see, he said during the discussion. He refused.
During another part of the trip, Mr Galat was frustrated that a visit to a sacred mountain was cut from the schedule.
“They had to fit in more propaganda visits,” he said.
Mr Galat later removed the stream of the discussion from his channel. He declined to say why.
How to win likes and influence people
It is unclear how much income the creators may be generating from this work. But apart from money, Chinese government entities have also provided something that can be just as valuable for a social media personality: digital traffic.
YouTube uses advertising revenue to pay influencers based on how many people are watching. Those eyeballs can also help influencers land sponsorship deals with big brands, as several of the pro-China YouTubers have done.
Mr Gal-Or posted his video about Xinjiang’s cotton farms on YouTube on April 8, shortly after Nike, H&M and other brands came under fire in China for expressing concern about reports of forced labour.
Within days, his video was reposted with Italian subtitles by the Facebook page of the Chinese Embassy in Italy, which has nearly 180,000 followers.
In the weeks that followed, the video, along with other clips of Mr Gal-Or in Xinjiang, were shared on Facebook and Twitter by at least 35 accounts run by Chinese embassies and official news outlets. In total, the accounts have roughly 400 million followers.
YouTube’s and Google’s algorithms favour videos that are shared widely on social media.
“Dictatorial countries can centralise their understanding of the algorithm and use it to boost all their channels,” said Mr Guillaume Chaslot, a former Google engineer who helped develop YouTube’s recommendation engine.
On Twitter, Mr Gal-Or’s video was shared by many accounts with suspiciously bare digital personas, according to Dr Darren Linvill, who studies social media disinformation at Clemson University. This, he said, is a characteristic sign of a coordinated operation.
Of the 534 accounts that tweeted the video from April through the end of June, two-fifths had 10 or fewer followers, Dr Linvill found; one in nine had zero followers. For nine accounts, Mr Gal-Or’s video was their first tweet.
Such activity has added to Mr Gal-Or’s and other creators’ digital footprints.
Mr Joshua Lam and Ms Libby Lange, graduate student researchers at Yale University, analysed a sample of nearly 290,000 tweets that mentioned Xinjiang in the first half of 2021. They found that six of the 10 most commonly shared YouTube videos in the tweets were from the pro-China influencers.
Transparency for influencers
YouTube told the Times that it hadn’t found evidence that these creators were “linked to coordinated influence operations”. The site, which is part of Google, regularly takes down channels that it finds to be promoting messages in a repetitive or coordinated way.
But YouTube also requires channels to disclose sponsorships or other commercial relationships so viewers can be made aware. After the Times asked about the payments and free travel from Chinese state media, YouTube said it would remind the creators of their obligations.
YouTube also tries to promote transparency by labelling channels run by government-funded news organisations. But the platform does not label the personal channels of their employees, it said.
This allows some YouTubers to obscure the fact that they work for Chinese state media.
Ms Li Jingjing takes her subscribers into the coral reefs of the South China Sea and discusses the West’s efforts to contain China. Her channel does not mention that she works for China Global Television Network.
Mr Stuart Wiggin’s channel, The China Traveler, does not indicate that he works for People’s Daily. Yet that was how Mr Wiggin, who is British, was identified by another state newspaper, China Daily, in its coverage of the “Date With China” campaign.
In his videos from Xinjiang, Mr Wiggin raves about the cuisine and interviews locals about how their lives have improved. Topics like re-education camps do not come up.
Mr Galat was among the most popular pro-Beijing YouTubers by the time he left China this year to bring his channel to new places. He is now documenting his travels across the United States.
In an interview, Mr Galat said he had no regrets about his videos from China.
Before the pandemic, Mr Galat, a Detroit native living in Ningbo, had built a YouTube following with his happy-go-lucky travel videos.
As China emerged from the worst of the outbreak, he began receiving travel invitations from local governments and state news outlets.
At the time, China was trying to deflect Western criticism of its pandemic response. Mr Galat said he was bothered by those criticisms, too.
His YouTube videos started getting political. He mused about whether the virus might have come from the United States. He hosted a discussion about the Western campaign against Huawei, the Chinese tech giant.
“People like to have dramatic and aggressive feelings toward things, and a lot of that content was more popular than, say, my normal travel videos,” he said.
By this year, Mr Galat’s channel had more than 100,000 subscribers. He acknowledged that the Chinese state media’s support helped his channel grow. As his trips with state media grew longer, the outlets paid him for his time, he said. He declined to say how much.
This summer, he went to Xinjiang on a trip planned by CGTN, the state broadcaster.
“Just a thought for those that want to compare China to Nazi Germany,” he says in one video at a museum on the culture of the Uighurs, one of Xinjiang’s minority groups. “Do you think that there was maybe museums in Germany before the war that were embracing Jewish culture?”
The views on Mr Galat’s YouTube videos have fallen since he left China. That doesn’t bother him, he said. In the future, his channel probably won’t be so political.
“I am not completely comfortable,” he said, “being a political talking post for big issues.”
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