Johnny Harris: A Story of YouTube Propaganda

This is a story about YouTube, journalism 
and what I think it’s only right to describe   as propaganda. It takes place at the unlikely 
meeting point between traditional news reporting,   the “influencer economy” and a multi-million 
dollar campaigning organisation which exists   to advocate for the interests of 
the world’s largest corporations.   And it centres on one of YouTube’s rising 
stars of the past 12 months: Johnny Harris. So, a few months ago, I was sat on my sofa, 
mindlessly scrolling the homepage of the   YouTube app when something increasingly rare 
happened: the all-powerful algorithm served up   a video I was genuinely interested in. The 
video was by a creator named Johnny Harris   who, by all accounts, has had a pretty 
good year on the platform. Until 2020,   Harris was a video journalist for Vox, 
where he created the much-celebrated (and   Emmy-nominated) series Borders. That year, 
after four seasons, Vox made the surprising   decision to cancel Borders and Harris left 
the company to strike out on his own as an   independent creator. He has remained prolific, 
combining making casual lifestyle content with   continuing to produce highly-polished, broadly 
geography-themed reportage-slash-explainer videos.

The video of Harris’ I was recommended is 
called I’m a Journalist Who Hates The News   and is a really interesting watch. There is a lot 
of critique, complaint and outright conspiracist   discussion about the mainstream media on 
YouTube, but there’s something relatively   unique about hearing the perspective of 
a professional journalist on the current   state of the press. Harris themes his critique 
of the news (in particular television news)   around three headers, but they all coalesce around 
the same notion: that the contemporary media   puts too much emphasis on making its reporting 
exciting, entertaining or otherwise emotive in   ways which actually leave us less informed about 
the world around us than we would be without it. Now, I really enjoyed that video; just as I 
have enjoyed a lot of Harris’ work. A month   or so later, however, I was recommended another 
video from his channel which was frankly alarming;   and not so much for what was said (although that 
wasn’t great either) but for the behind-the-scenes   reasons for why it was said and the exchange 
of (even if not money) access and support   which brought it into existence.

This second video 
not only changed my perspective on Harris’ work,   but also provoked some alarming questions 
about the future of independent journalism   in cases where, as with Harris, that journalism 
comes into contact with the so-called   “influencer economy”. For, it raised the 
prospect of a new kind of influencer brand deal   (made all the more worrisome when that creator 
presents themselves as a journalist) where,   unlike the plugs for, say, the fantastic 
VPN services of Surfshark that have become   a mainstay of platforms such as YouTube, a 
creator is not paid simply to sell a product   or service, but gives over creative control of 
their platform to those seeking to sell an idea. The video of Harris’ that provoked these 
concerns is titled How China Became So Powerful.   For the first minute or so, it seems to 
be a fairly standard Johnny Harris video;   an engagingly-written, gorgeously-edited attempt 
to demystify a country which most people in the   English-speaking world know shamefully little 
about. Things take a slight turn around the   90-second mark when, in an effort to try and add 
some global context to his discussion of China,   Harris evidences a pretty threadbare understanding 
of post-Second World War politics and economics.

Yet, it’s around the 7-minute mark when 
things become bizarre. At this point,   Harris stops talking about China almost entirely 
and, instead, embarks upon a polemic about the   state of contemporary capitalism. Drawing on a 
couple of graphs, he argues that what he calls   “shareholder capitalism” has led to 
massive inequality both globally and within   individual nations. He also charges “shareholder 
capitalism” with having put the very planet we   live on in jeopardy through its preference for 
increasing profits over reducing CO2 emissions.   And, of course, thus far, he’s right. The truly 
odd moment comes when he begins to offer us   a solution to these crises. Does the route to 
addressing inequality and the climate emergency   lie in moving away from this evidently 
and existentially destructive system? No,   he sarcastically laughs that idea off pretty 
quickly. The solution, according to Harris,   lies in a subtle shifting away from 
what he calls “shareholder capitalism”   and towards something he calls “stakeholder 
capitalism”: an idea which he defines so loosely   as to make it almost meaningless but which broadly 
involves corporations taking into account the   impact of their business practices on people 
and the planet as well as trying to turn a   profit for shareholders.

In fact, he goes 
further, to suggest that companies such as   Walmart, Apple and JP Morgan are already doing 
this. Fantastic, I guess then, crises averted. Now, I don’t have a problem with polemical YouTube 
videos; a good deal of my channel is comprised of   such content. Yet, this is not the kind of video 
that Harris usually makes. During his time at Vox,   he was a reporter, not an opinion writer. 
Outside of How China Became So Powerful   and I’m a Journalist Who Hates The News, Harris 
might point to a localised problem in the country   or region he is reporting on but he usually steers 
well clear of making any pronouncements about how   we can solve these problems.

As vague as the 
notion of “stakeholder capitalism” might be,   to hear him suddenly promoting a unified global 
political and economic system was, in all honesty,   a bit of a shock. It just seemed out of character. At the very end of the video, however, we get 
an explanation for Harris’ pivot to political   idealist which, for anyone who values journalism 
in any way should be deeply, deeply worrying.   In the final minute when, realistically, most 
people will have stopped watching, Harris reveals   that this video was produced in partnership with 
an organisation called the World Economic Forum.   He tells us how great the World Economic 
Forum is and encourages us to buy a book by   their founder and current Executive Chairman, 
Klaus Schwab. We’ll talk in a second about   what the World Economic Forum is but, in short, 
this is a promotional video. And, not only in the   sense of containing a brief plug within it but in 
the sense that, from beginning to end, this is an   advert. It may be dressed up as essentially an 
independently-created episode of Borders, yet,   this is not journalism; this is a piece of 
propaganda produced in very close partnership   with (in fact, as we’ll see shortly, seemingly 
co-written by a very senior PR Executive from)   an organisation which no journalist should be 
uncritically echoing the talking points of.   The same guy who, two months previously, was 
bemoaning the state of journalism was now   (even if not selling, in which case I would 
question his business acumen) at the very least   lending his platform and journalistic reputation   to exactly the kind of organisation which 
we expect journalists to be critical of.

So, before we dig deeper into why someone 
who presents themselves as a journalist   creating sponsored content of this kind is so 
worrying, I think it’s useful to take a brief   look at what the World Economic Forum (or WEF) 
is. For, Harris describes it merely as a “think   tank” and its (frankly quite boring) name makes 
it sound fairly harmless, right? Well, to use the   proper terminology, the WEF is an international 
non-governmental organisation (or NGO). What this   means is that it is essentially a campaigning 
group which attempts to persuade both national   governments and supranational organisations 
such as the United Nations and European   Union to implement certain political and economic 
policies. Many large charities are NGOs; alongside   its direct aid and poverty relief activities, for 
example, the charity Oxfam also operates as an NGO   which advocates for the adoption of policies 
which alleviate poverty and suffering. If Oxfam advocates for an end to poverty, 
then, what does the World Economic Forum   campaign for? Well, on its website, the WEF 
describes itself (again in cryptic corporate   speak) as ‘the International Organisation 
for Public-Private Cooperation’, continuing   that ‘the Forum engages the foremost political, 
business, cultural and other leaders of society   to shape global, regional and industry agendas’. 
In short, it seeks to bring Presidents, Prime   Ministers and other governmental figures together 
with CEOs and business leaders to encourage them   to think about how they might work together to, 
as they describe it, ‘make positive change’.

As the notion of “stakeholder capitalism” that 
Johnny Harris discusses in his video suggests,   the World Economic Forum tends to remain fairly 
vague about exactly what “positive change”   they are working towards. We can begin to 
get some idea of the kind of policies that   the Forum might promote, however, by 
taking a look at how it’s funded. For,   whilst the WEF claims to be ‘independent, 
impartial and not tied to any special interests’,   its annual revenue of just over 408 million 
US dollars (as of 2020) comes mostly from the   fees paid by global corporations such as Apple, 
Amazon, Google, Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, Nestlé,   The Coca Cola Company, Goldman Sachs and pretty 
much every other significant global company to be   “partners” of the Forum, to attend its glitzy 
events and to shape the policies it advocates for.

Now, some draw on the World Economic Forum’s 
function as essentially an advocacy organisation   for the richest companies in the world as the 
basis for highly spurious conspiracy theories.   To give the most recent example of this, 
a key part of the WEF’s activities is its   organisation of the annual Davos Summit in which 
billionaires, business leaders and heads of state   gather in the resort town of Davos in the Swiss 
Alps to discuss the future of global economics and   politics. The 2021 event, which owing 
to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic took   place online (and which, as we’ll see, Johnny 
Harris’ video was produced to coincide with),   saw the WEF launch an initiative which it called 
“The Great Reset”. Online conspiracy theorists   soon took this foreboding title as 
proof that Bill Gates and the rest   of the global elite were finally getting 
around to establishing the New World Order.

The truth is more mundane. As the 
journalist George Monbiot put it on Twitter,   “The Great Reset” ‘is basically a cynical 
rebranding of capitalism as a force for good’.   For the most part, it’s an attempt to convince us 
that the World Economic Forum and its corporate   partners recognise the various economic and 
ecological crises which our present economic   system has engendered and to make it seem as 
though they’re going to do something about it.   In reality, very little will actually change   (at least when it comes to dealing with 
inequality and the climate emergency). In a recent article for The Intercept, Naomi 
Klein concurs, pointing out that this kind of   “rebranding” exercise is nothing new for the 
Forum. Since the early 2000s, the WEF (and the   Davos Summit in particular) have become a platform 
for global corporations to feign regret about   the human and environmental consequences of their 
business practices. They regularly invite climate   and inequality activists to give them a public 
dressing-down in front of the world’s press.   It was at Davos in 2019 that Greta Thunberg 
declared that ‘our house is on fire’.

That same   year, the Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman garnered 
global headlines when he implored the Summit   to ‘start talking about taxes’; by which he meant 
that the rich needed to be paying more tax and   that governments needed to be cracking down on tax 
avoidance. Both Thunberg and Bregman’s comments   received solemn nods and gracious applause from 
Davos attendees, but led to zero material action. Davos and the World Economic Forum, then, 
are essentially where the richest 1%   go to pretend to have a conscience. While I’m 
sure there’s plenty of backroom wheeling and   dealing which is facilitated by the WEF, 
in terms of its public-facing activities,   it serves as a means for global corporations 
and the super-rich to repeatedly pretend to have   seen the error of their ways 
and to be on the cusp of change   before they go back to their boardrooms 
to carry on with business as usual.

The World Economic Forum’s decision to work 
with Johnny Harris to create a video about   how companies such as Apple and Walmart are 
currently enthusiastically moving away from   “shareholder capitalism” and towards this vague 
notion of “stakeholder capitalism” is just another   in a long line of examples of the Forum attempting 
to convince us that, against all the evidence,   they are even remotely concerned about anything 
other than profit. For the purposes of today’s   video, however, I’m not overly interested in the 
specific claims that Harris makes in How China   Became So Powerful.

Instead, I’m interested 
in the partnership between Harris and the WEF   that led to him making those claims and the 
warning it represents about the growing trend   of governments and advocacy organisations such 
as the WEF using YouTube (and YouTube creators)   to spread propaganda and disinformation; and 
why we should be particularly worried about   this trend in instances where those 
creators purport to be journalists. So, this video isn’t propaganda but 
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bit of today’s video. Now, on with the show. Earlier in this video, I suggested that 
the reason that Harris’ How China Became So   Powerful video was so worrying was because (in 
addition to the fact that Harris is presenting   himself as a journalist) the relationship 
between Harris and the World Economic Forum   appeared to go much deeper than the kind of 
relationship which underlies most of the other   brand deals, ad placements and shout-outs that 
you’re likely used to seeing on YouTube. Whilst   it might seem like a little bit of a digression, 
then, I think, in order to explain this fully,   it’s useful to give a very brief sense 
of how such sponsorships tend to work.

Now, there are many ways in which companies 
work with creators on this and other social   media platforms to promote, usually, products and 
services. If you want a more complete overview,   I would suggest checking out Tom Scott’s 
video about influencers and product placement.   Generally speaking, however, there are two 
main types of paid brand deal on YouTube. The terminology varies, but the first is what, 
for today’s purposes, we’ll call an “integration”.   This entails a creator making a video in almost 
exactly the way they would if it wasn’t sponsored.   The only difference is that a company 
will pay them to, at some point,   segue into a (usually relatively distinct) section 
in which they tell you about the product or   services sold by that company; much like I did 
earlier in this video with the Surfshark spot.   The creator will normally encourage you to 
use a discount code or follow an affiliate   link (again just like I did) which helps the 
company sponsoring the video to get a sense   of whether it’s worth them sponsoring more 
videos by that creator in the future.

The   creator will then, in most cases, segue 
back into the main topic of the video. An integration of this kind is essentially an 
ad break. Companies will normally be keen to   advertise in videos about topics relevant to 
their product or service and will often have   other topics they’ll avoid. They’ll also give 
the creator some bullet points regarding the   particular features of the product or service they 
sell which they’d like the creator to highlight   within the integration section. Outside of this, 
however, creative control over the wider video   is entirely in the hands of the creator.

Whilst 
there are higher-level ways in which the prospect   of scoring a sponsorship might encourage 
creators to cover certain topics and to   avoid others which are more complex 
than we’ve got time to go into today,   the company generally has no say 
in the content of the wider video. The second type of brand deal relevant to 
our discussion is what we’ll refer to as a   “sponsored post”. Here, a company partners 
with a creator to produce a video which   they otherwise probably wouldn’t have made 
at all. In most cases, this will involve a   creator making a video about a product or 
service the company sells and presenting   it in a pretty much uncompromisingly 
positive light. As an example of this,   we might look at this video by the channel Linus 
Tech Tips in which the host, Linus, tells us how   all your computer backing-up needs can be solved 
by purchasing a device by a particular company.   Where an integration essentially involves 
the insertion of an ad break in a video,   a sponsored post is basically an advert 
in its entirety.

From beginning to end,   the whole purpose of the video is to sell a 
particular product or service. Alongside the   fact that the creator usually wouldn’t have made 
the video at all if they hadn’t been paid to, the   key difference here is that the company paying for 
the video has significant creative control over   the final product. Whilst they’ll normally rely 
on the creator to write, film and edit the video,   they might ask for a section to be taken out or 
for something to be added in order to ensure it   achieves their objective of presenting their 
company, product or service in the best light. In my experience, people are generally more 
amenable to integrations than they are to wholly   sponsored posts.

At least, I hope so given that 
this video contains an integration. I know that,   as a medium-sized creator whose income through 
the automated ads on YouTube can vary wildly,   integration deals can make a big difference 
in providing some kind of financial stability   to my life. This is the same for a lot of 
creators and I like to think that viewers   understand this. When it comes to wholly sponsored 
videos, however, I think people are rightly more   sceptical. However upfront a creator is 
about the sponsoring company’s involvement,   it’s hard to eradicate the aura of insincerity 
and the notion that the scales have shifted from   a creator using a brand deal to better enable 
them to create content for their audience   to using their audience to allow them 
to get a brand deal with a company. Now, given how focussed we’ve been on the selling 
of products or services in this section, it might   seem to not be all that relevant to the case of 
Johnny Harris and the World Economic Forum.

But,   this issue of control over the content of a video 
(or, indeed, a written article or any other kind   of content) only becomes more important when it 
comes to that which is presented as journalism. So, to return to Johnny Harris, we don’t know 
what kind of arrangement existed between Harris   and the World Economic Forum. In his brief 
acknowledgement of the WEF’s involvement   in the video at the very end of How China Became 
So Powerful, Harris initially suggests that they   merely provided him with the graphs which 
he uses to illustrate some of his points;   although both graphs are freely and 
widely available on the internet. He later   describes the video as having been produced ‘in 
partnership’ with the WEF. It’s all very vague. Now, it’s entirely possible that Harris’ 
partnership with the World Economic Forum   didn’t involve the exchange of a single penny. 
Perhaps the allure of working with such a large   and influential organisation was enough. 
Yet, I think the most important takeaway   from our discussion of the differing forms of 
relationship between companies and influencers   is not that money exchanges hands or how much 
but this issue of control over the content.   And, this is where things get interesting.

See, not only did the release of How China 
Became So Powerful coincide with the 2021   Davos Agenda meeting, but an alternative, 
text version of the script for that video   was included as part of a series of blog posts 
published on the World Economic Forum’s website   which served as provocations for the wider 
event. The blog post is shorter than the   video and is worded differently but has the 
same structure, references the same events,   draws on the same data sets and makes all the same 
points. The video which Harris released on YouTube   is also embedded within the blog.

What’s 
particularly interesting is that, here,   it is not only Harris who appears as the author of 
the piece; in fact, he’s only listed as the second   author. The other author, who gets top billing, is 
Peter Vanham, the Head of Communications for the   World Economic Forum’s Chairman’s Office (and who, 
as a side note, co-wrote the book on Stakeholder   Capitalism by the World Economic Forum’s Executive 
Chairman, Klaus Schwab, which Harris recommends   at the end of How China Became So Powerful). 
Harris’ video, then, was not only influenced   by the talking points of the World Economic Forum 
and was not only produced in partnership with them   but was seemingly co-written by one of the 
organisation’s most senior PR executives. In the previous section, we looked at the 
(fairly routine) practice of creators on   YouTube and other social media sites handing over 
their platforms and reputations to companies to   create whole posts which present their products in 
an uncompromisingly flattering light. And, there’s   obviously questions to be asked about the ethics 
of such deals.

But this, to my mind, is far more   worrying. Here, we have an influencer who presents 
themselves as a journalist shaping their work   to meet the agenda of a campaigning organisation 
which seeks to encourage us to view the world   from a certain perspective: the perspective 
of the largest corporations in the world. For, to stress the point, this is not journalism. 
This is a piece of promotional content,   seemingly co-written by a PR executive, produced 
as part of a much larger PR campaign which wrapped   around the 2021 Davos Agenda meeting.

See, in 
our contemporary moment, many young people,   assessing the scale of contemporary inequality 
and of the climate emergency, are asking deep   questions about how they want our world to be run. 
A 2019 poll found that 70% of Millennials and 64%   of Gen Z’ers in the United States—the ideological 
centre of contemporary capitalism—would   be somewhat likely or extremely likely to 
vote for a socialist candidate for President.   The World Economic Forum are more than aware 
of the threat this poses to the companies   which fund their activities.

Their partnership 
with Harris, then, is essentially an attempt to   use his platform and voice to connect with that 
demographic in order to say, “hey fellow kids,   capitalism’s cool actually and is totally gonna 
solve all the problems it’s also causing”. Coming   directly from, say, Lockheed Martin or Goldman 
Sachs, such a statement would sound ridiculous.   But, place it in the mouth of a relatively 
young person with a hipster aesthetic,   a sizeable YouTube following, some 
ridiculously good skills on After   Effects and a reputation for high-quality 
journalism, and it almost sounds convincing.

I do want to say that, for all I’ve criticised 
Harris in this video, I don’t think that all of   this was necessarily a calculated, nefarious move 
on his part. One thing that is noticeable in his   video about hating the news is the absence 
of any real acknowledgement of the issue   of media ownership and how the manner in which 
media companies being owned by wealthy private   individuals and corporations who would like to 
stay wealthy might shape the way in which they   report on the world around us. Generally speaking, 
most journalists are either naive about these   matters or are highly hesitant to admit that how 
their work is funded might affect their reporting.   We also have the fact that Harris is still likely 
trying to find his feet as an independent creator   following Vox’s cancellation of Borders and, on 
top of this, has found himself in the strange   position of being somewhere in between an 
independent journalism and a lifestyle influencer,   both of which come with very 
different ethical codes.

If Harris is sincere in his statements 
that he will be continuing to act as a   journalist on his personal channel, however, 
then producing content in partnership with   organisations such as the World Economic 
Forum should be completely beyond the pale.   This is precisely the kind of institution that we 
need journalists to be critical of, to ask deep,   probing questions about the intentions and 
motivations of, not to serve as mouth-pieces for. I want to close out this video by acknowledging 
that the vast majority of contemporary journalism   relies on some form of advertising revenue. In 
the case of solely online outlets or independent   journalists, it might be the only revenue stream. 
That’s unlikely to change in the near future.   But, again, the distinction lies in who has 
control over the content of the journalism itself. I think the prospect of a greater amount of 
proper, professional, independent journalism on   YouTube and elsewhere on the web is really 
exciting. It has the potential to allow   new voices to circumvent the rigid hierarchies 
and biases of legacy media and to provide new   perspectives on current affairs.

Yet, 
as we’ve seen, the manner in which such   independent online journalism is likely to 
see it come into contact with the so-called   “influencer economy” also leaves it 
open to distortion by bad actors. There are already several groups who use YouTube 
and other social media platforms as vectors of   misinformation. Whole channels, such as Prager U, 
funded by billionaires who want to encourage us to   see the world in a certain way, exist to this 
end. Yet, there’s also been a rise in advocacy   organisations and national governments working 
with creators with pre-existing platforms to help   push their agendas. Last month, The Times (the UK 
one) published an article about how the Chinese   government is using British YouTubers to spread 
pro-China propaganda for the benefit of both a   domestic and international audience. Last year, 
the conservative Canadian YouTuber J.J. McCullough   also reported having been approached by someone 
with at least some connection to the Chinese   government asking him to post a ready-made 
piece of pro-China propaganda to his channel.

The prospect of this kind of brand deal-style 
propagandising coming into contact with those   who present themselves as independent, impartial 
journalists, as in the case of Johnny Harris   and the World Economic Forum, is particularly 
worrying. While Harris did at least acknowledge   the partnership at the very end of his video, I 
think we need to resist this kind of deal becoming   a norm. For, else we risk finding ourselves in a 
scenario when all the potential for independent   journalism on platforms such as YouTube is lost 
in a sea of paid-for misinformation which looks   like journalism on the surface but, in 
reality, is little more than propaganda..

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