Pyongyang Is Totes Awesome, Bro

This is a superlative cyberpunk headline if I ever saw one: “YouTube Stars Are Now Being Used for North Korean Propaganda”. A vlogger named Louis Cole uploaded a series of videos in which he gallivanted around the DPRK, with nary a mention of the country’s atrocious human rights record.

Per the article: “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.” I mean, to be fair, famine is a bummer, right? What brand would want to sponsor a vlogger who talks about that stuff?

Louis Cole on Twitter, @funforlouis. Glad you're enjoying yourself, buddy.
Louis Cole on Twitter, @funforlouis. Glad you’re enjoying yourself, buddy.
The "beautiful military guide at the war museum", praised by Louis Cole on Instagram.
The “beautiful military guide at the war museum”, praised by Louis Cole on Instagram.

In the article, Richard Lawson wrote incisively:

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.

Louis Cole’s manager insisted that he wasn’t being paid by the DPRK and didn’t intend to “gloss over or dismiss any negative issues that plague the country”. Like Lawson, I believe that.

I don’t think this vlogger was gleefully pressing “upload” and thinking, “Haha, now’s my chance to bolster the image of an oppressive dictator!” On his Twitter account — which he appears to run himself — Cole said, “its a tiny step & gesture of peace. waving a finger & isolating the country even more fuels division” [sic].

Here’s the thing, though — Cole may be goodhearted and he may mean all the best, but it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t change the fact that he was shilling for the carefully curated trip that a brutal regime presented to him. And it doesn’t change the incentives that he and his professional brethren are responding to.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the new “influencer economy”, as it’s being called — for instance, Elspeth Reeves’ fascinating article on teen lip-syncing sensations — because I’m a media geek and that’s a substantial portion of the future of media. So I follow a lot of these people on social media.

The “influencers” who are raking in cash are relentlessly positive. Big companies are risk-averse — they don’t want to be associated with anything negative — and big companies are the ones cutting checks to YouTube stars, Instagram stars, etc. Interpersonal drama pops up now and then, but any political questions are avoided.

Who can blame them? Gotta make a buck and late capitalism only offers so many options…

(I still blame them.)

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