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 this portion of it has been sponsored by the fantastic VPN services of Surfshark. Protect yourself online by heading over to surfshark.deals/tomnicholas to get 83% off a 2-year plan and an extra 3 months for free, allowing you to securely and privately browse the web for just $2.21 a month.Whether you’re a journalist or not, keeping your online activity hidden from the prying eyes of Internet Service Providers and increasingly tracker-ridden websites is currently more important than ever with so many of us working from home. Surfshark has enabled me and can enable you to do this quickly and easily with no advanced tech knowledge required by essentially creating a private internet connection to keep you safe and secure whenever you’re online.Surfshark is packed full of features, such as their “CleanWeb” mode, which not only blocks trackers and malware but also ads and which I’ve found has made my browsing experience infinitely more pleasurable. You can also use it to trick websites (such as streaming services) into thinking you’re in other countries, unlocking tons of extra content.So, if you want to take advantage of that incredible, time-limited offer of 83% off a two year plan and an extra three months for free, you can support the channel by letting them know I sent you through heading over to surfshark.deals/tomnicholas.Thanks again to Surfshark for sponsoring this 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.