Sports fans who tuned in to watch the Beijing Winter Olympics on YouTube are instead being served propaganda videos. An analysis of YouTube search results by WIRED found that people who typed “Beijing,” “Beijing 2022,” “Olympics,” or “Olympics 2022” were shown pro-China and anti-China propaganda videos in the top results. Five of the most prominent propaganda videos, which often appear above actual Olympics highlights, have amassed almost 900,000 views.
Two anti-China videos showing up in search results were published by a group called The BL (The Beauty of Life), which Facebook previously linked to the Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement that was banned by the Chinese Communist Party in 1999 and has protested against the regime ever since. They jostled for views with pro-China videos posted by Western YouTubers whose work has previously been promoted by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Similar search results were visible in the US, Canada, and the UK. WIRED also found signs that viewing numbers for pro-China videos are being artificially boosted through the use of fake news websites.
This flurry of propaganda videos was first spotted earlier this month by John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s research laboratory, Citizen Lab. On February 5, Scott-Railton found that after he’d watched skating and curling videos, YouTube automatically played a video by a pro-China YouTube account. “I found myself on a slippery slide from skating and curling into increasingly targeted propaganda,” he says. These videos no longer appeared in autoplay by February 11, when WIRED conducted its analysis. But the way similar videos still dominate YouTube search results suggests the platform is at risk of letting such campaigns hijack the Olympics.
YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo says the “vast majority of videos” showing up in search results were posted by “trusted sources” like NBC Sports and the official Olympics channel and none of the videos shared violated the company’s policies.
A common theme in the pro-Beijing propaganda videos is the 2019 decision by US-born skier Eileen Gu to compete for China at the Winter Olympics. A video titled “USA's Boycott FAILURE … Eileen Gu Wins Gold” by YouTuber Jason Lightfoot is the top result for the search term “Beijing,” with 54,000 views.
The US and Canada were among the countries that took part in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. In Canada, that same video by Jason Lightfoot also showed up for users searching for “Olympics 2022” and “Winter Olympics,” although much further down, in 26th and 33rd place. In the video, Lightfoot says Western media “can’t take what Eileen Gu represents … someone who has chosen China over the American dream.”
In another video, which has more than 400,000 views, American YouTuber Cyrus Janssen also discusses why Gu chose to represent China. The video, which is the fifth result for the search term “Beijing,” details Gu’s career before referencing the high rates of anti-Asian hate crime in the US, a subject that has also been covered by mainstream American media outlets.
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The second top video for the search term “Beijing” is titled “What the Chinese Think of the US Boycott of Beijing Olympics and Uyghur Issues” and posted by an influencer who goes by the name Asian Boss. The video, which has been viewed more than 300,000 times, claims to interview “ordinary Chinese citizens” in Shanghai, asking them what they think about the US decision to ban government officials from attending the Beijing Olympics. One interviewee suggests the US is jealous of China’s economic success. “Look, my jeans are over 30k RMB (US$4.7K),” he says. “I doubt even if some foreigners can afford this.”
It is unclear what the relationship is between a small cohort of pro-Beijing YouTubers and the Chinese state. It’s possible their content is amplified by China’s propaganda networks without their knowledge or participation. The country’s state-backed broadcaster and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs systematically promote videos by the same accounts on social media, according to a December 2021 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Janssen and Lightfoot are also both listed by Chinese state broadcaster CGTN as part of its global stringer program, suggesting they contribute to the outlet even if they are not full-time employees. Neither Lightfoot nor the user called Asian Boss responded to requests to comment.
But not all the videos showing up between clips of ice hockey and speed skating were pro-China. The search term “Beijing” also retrieved a video made by The BL, which has been branded a media outlet with a “pro-Trump editorial strategy” by fact-checking organization Snopes.
The BL has published 98 videos in the last three days. Only one video has above 10,000 views and was recommended above Olympics coverage from NBC Sports, which is the official broadcaster in the US. In a 2:50-minute video titled “Beijing Winter Olympics: Polish female athlete dragged away at night,” the narrator recounts the story of the Polish short-track speed skater who complained about being put in an ambulance due to conflicting Covid-19 test results. The video goes on to detail various athletes’ complaints about isolation conditions in China, ranging from “mental stress” to “burnt food.” The BL is also running an advert on the search term “Olympics 2022.” The video advertised was titled “Uyghur torchbearer disappears right after match.” The BL did not respond to a request for comment.
Robert Potter, researcher and co-CEO of Australian cyber-security company Internet 2.0, discovered that both the Cyrus Janssen and Asian Boss videos had been embedded multiple times on a fake news site called Oakland News Now, which helped them game YouTube’s algorithm.
YouTube spokesperson Shadloo says the platform does not allow anything that artificially increases the number of views or other metrics. Potter agrees that YouTube can tell if one person or computer watches a video hundreds of times in an attempt to make it look more popular than it is. But if that video is embedded on a different site, this behavior is harder for YouTube to identify, he claims. “It's less so a manipulation of the recommendation system as it is a manipulation of the viewer numbers.”
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Janssen says the reason his video performed well was because he spent a lot of time designing the thumbnail image with bright colors and a red "X" inviting people to click. “The reason that my video is showing up frequently is because ‘Eileen Gu’ is a trending topic,” he says. “One of the key things about being a YouTuber is to find popular topics and publish the videos just as people start going to Google and type in that interesting topic.” He responded to claims his videos have been used as pro-China propaganda by saying that he is an independent content creator. “The mission of my channel has always remained the same,” he says. “When the US and China work together the entire world wins.”
Updated 02/14/2022, 10:30 am EST: Additional comments from a YouTube spokesperson have been added.
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