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17 August 2016

Why YouTubers are the perfect tools for propaganda

A popular YouTube star is being accussed of creating propaganda for North Korea. Here's why that isn't as crazy as it sounds. 

By Amelia Tait

Did you know that North Korea has amazing water parks? Probably not. You’re probably too busy focusing on the hermit kingdom’s “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” as detailed in the United Nations’ extensive 2014 report. Still, North Korea does have amazing water parks, and we’re glad Surrey YouTuber FunforLouis is here to remind us of that fact.

Louis is currently uploading a series of vlogs from his time in North Korea, which – as first pointed out by Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair – come off remarkably like state-approved propaganda. “I’m trying to focus on positive things in the country and combat the purely negative image we see in the Media,” Louis writes under five of his seven videos, whose titles include: “NORTH KOREAN SURFER CHICKS”; “BREAKING BARRIERS”; “BEYOND THE TOURISM”; and “PLAYING WITH LOCAL KIDS!”

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Louis – a 33-year-old man who once ate a live tarantula on camera and has 1.8m subscribers of which, judging by his twitter followers, the majority are teen girls – has been forced to deny Lawson’s accusations, sticking a small addendum on his video descriptions. “(This is not a government sponsored trip),” he writes, brackets and all.

Leaving aside for a moment that YouTubers are experts at hiding who pays them to say what, the very act of Louis travelling to North Korea and being permitted to film his experiences was at least orchestrated – if not paid for – by the government. Everyone who travels to the country must do so under an official guided tour, and what is seen – and not seen – is decided by the state. Louis, however, seems confident that he is experiencing things that others in the capital ‘m’ media have not. Let’s just slip in a little quote from Joseph Goebbels here:

“Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident that they are acting on their free will.”

Whether or not Louis’ videos are paid for, then, does not negate the fact that they are propaganda. And for allowing one of the don’t-forget-to-like-comment-and-subscribe brigade into his country, Kim Jong-un is officially a marketing genius.

Although Kim Jong-un’s portrait-in-every-room policy is a solid attempt, the North Korean dictator has not yet reached the cult of personality achieved by Britain’s own 26-year-old Zoella. North Korea’s 1.2m active soldiers have nothing on the beauty guru’s own army of 11m teen girls. Don’t believe me? Go online. Anywhere online. Say something bad about Zoella. Now wait.

But Jong-un isn’t the first world leader to harness the formidable power of the YouTube elite. Starting in 2014 with Tyler Oakley, Barack Obama has invited a host of YouTubers to the White House to meet with him and upload interviews to their channels. In May 2015, Ed Miliband filmed a video with beauty guru Sprinkleofglitter reminding her teen viewers to register to vote (unfortunately she uploaded it after the deadline passed). If only he’d chosen Zoella, he might have won.

YouTube’s unique culture of celebrity, where viewers develop parasocial relationships with creators, believing they are friends, has already benefited many brands. Books and bottles that YouTubers slap their names on have repeatedly broken sales records. Although the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) requires YouTubers to disclose when a video is a paid-for advert (usually with the hashtag #ad in the title) many get away with it by burying the disclaimer or taking undisclosed sponsorships.

If Louis received payment for his vlog  that doesn’t have to just be money, it can include free gifts, reciprocal arrangements, other perks  and what he’s saying is controlled by the brand or advertiser, then it would be classed as advertising, says Matthew Wilson, a spokesman for the ASA. In that instance, the content should be labelled ‘ad’ or ‘advertisement feature’ or similar as a clear and easy-to-understand way of informing a reader or follower when the material they’re looking at or engaging with is advertising.

Even with an #ad disclosure, YouTubers’ potential to disseminate propaganda is arguably huge. Filming with Obama and Miliband is one thing, and YouTubers are free – like any celebrity – to publicly support any politician they wish. But the same group of people who have no qualms about reviewing products they haven’t even opened might not to be too discerning about supporting political figures and regimes they don’t actually agree with.  

Of course, it is highly unlikely that while Calvin Klein still wants to promote pants, and publishing houses continue to cash in on YouTubers’ fame, many content creators will be dashing off to film a #collab with the world’s fiercest dictators. But there is potential. And now, with FunforLouis, there appears to be a precedent.

Back to the Reich Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels’ most famous quote is: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Zoella’s is: “Just say yes.”

At the end of the day, it is a little silly to imagine YouTubers working hand-in-hand with dictators. FunforLouis probably didn’t have a truck of blood-stained cash driven to his home in the middle of the night. But what’s scarier: YouTubers being paid to promote a murderous regime, or the fact they’ll promote it anyway if there’s a water slide involved?