YouTube Stars Are Now Being Used for North Korean Propaganda

[By: Richard Lawson] [Vanity Fair] [Read More]

British vlogger Louis Cole just wants to focus on the positive things about one of the world’s most oppressive nations.


Lots of strange things happen on YouTube. Rashomon-like retellings of the same birthday party, over and over again. People eating candy and calling it entertainment. Casey Couture. But right now, something especially strange is happening on Google’s great video platform, something I never thought I’d see, and yet probably should have seen coming: a popular YouTuber is gallivanting around North Korea. And he’s loving it!

Louis Cole is a 33-year-old vlogger from the U.K. with about 1.8 million subscribers on his FunForLouis YouTube channel. He’s a highly competent travel vlogger, part of a subset of daily YouTubers that also includes Ben Brown: British lads, many of them fans and acolytes of American vlogger Casey Neistat, obsessed with cameras and time-lapses and documenting their coffee habits. Cole’s videos are well-edited and engaging, and the sheer constancy of his travel—he’s forever on the go, it seems—ensures that his frequent videos are rarely dull or un-special, as so much on YouTube is. Cole, like his daily vlogger brethren, is relentlessly positive, projecting a chill-dude, laid-back, good-vibes vibe—sometimes to a pathological degree.

Which brings me to his travels in North Korea, a series of videos that he’s currently uploading. Cole and a bunch of other vloggers recently went on a trip through the reclusive, politically repressive nation, beaming back positive depictions of people and places that all seem . . . awfully tidy, judging from what we know—or, to be fair, what politicians and journalists tell us—about North Korea. It all seems highly suspicious, this vision of a country, a North Korean media tour similar to Vice’s fascinating documentary, only without any of the critical context and perspective.

In the description section of one of his North Korea videos, Cole writes, “I’m trying to focus on positive things in the country and combat the purely negative image we see in the Media.” Which, O.K., sure. But as another vlogger shows us in his own video from the DPRK (vloggers seem to be going there en masse), these videos are meant to capture a very carefully curated vision of a country whose human rights abuses are “without parallel in the contemporary world,” according to Human Rights Watch. Cole has, so far, not really made mention of any of that, choosing instead to go for a light tone, oohing and ahhing over abundant food in a country ravaged by hunger.

Some viewers have pointed this out to Cole in the comments sections of his videos. One commenter, Chris Prouse, (herself a vlogger) wrote, “I appreciate that you’re showing us a different part of the world, and North Korea might have built monuments that are symbolic of unity . . . but it’s pretty hard to ignore North Korea’s human rights violations, and I hope it’s something you mention after the trip, for the sake of helping people gather a balanced, informed view of what’s happening there.” Cole hasn’t engaged much, if at all, with that critique.

Look, I don’t know if the North Korean government paid for the trip, or had any involvement at all in these videos. All I know is the North Korean government tends to take a pretty active role in deciding who gets to tour around their country shooting video and sending it out to the world. But I’ve e-mailed an ostensible rep for Cole to ask what arrangement, if any, he made. I will update this post if I learn anything more specific.

The more you watch Cole’s videos from North Korea, the more you wonder if he’s plainly ignorant to the plight of many people in the country, or if he’s willingly doing an alarmingly thorough job of carrying water for Kim Jong Un’s regime—not really caring what the implications are, because, hey, cool trip.

Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe this is a surreal extreme of the unthinking, vacuous new-niceness that occupies a large amount of YouTube territory, content creators so determined to deliver an upbeat, brand-friendly message that the uncomfortable truths of the world—personal and political—go mind-bogglingly, witlessly ignored.

That blinkered, synthetic optimism, mixed with this particular group of vloggers’ increasingly embarrassing self-importance—tethered to the assumption that they can heal and change the planet through quotidian daily vlogs and mawkish, surface-level “inspirational” sponsored content—creates a climate that allows for these truly unsettling North Korea videos to exist. What galls the most is Cole’s smarmy indictment of journalistic depictions of North Korea, as if he is the first person to ever consider the humanity and unsung beauty of a place like North Korea and its people. As if addressing the negative realities of the country, like Cole’s dreaded “Media” does, is somehow denying that country’s humanity—when, in fact, it most often does the exact opposite. This is remarkably immature, smug, reckless, and flat-out dumb thinking. Yet a vlogger like Cole inoculates himself against any criticism—or, at least, assumes himself inoculated against it—because he’s not trying to hurt anyone, mate. He’s just trying to be positive.

Again, this is an extreme example. But it is nonetheless an indicator of a broader, more banal evil shaping YouTube and the influencer economy. When vloggers are accepting travel to North Korea to broadcast its riches and wonders to the Western world while many of the country’s own citizens starve and suffer unimaginably (again, if you listen to the “Media,” and many government and non-government organizations), and few people bat an eyelash, I think we’ve arrived at a very strange and troubling place indeed—for YouTube, and for the rest of us. I’m glad Cole seems to have enjoyed his big trip. I just wish he seemed to understand, or would admit, the potential human cost of all that fun.