“Do you remember what happened to Hong Kong right before COVID-19? China swooped into Hong Kong. Violently! Beating protesters, killing them in the streets without just cause. Hong Kong was a democracy and the whole world stood by and let it happen.”
This blatant lie was uttered by supposed US intelligence operative, Andrew Bustamante, at the 36:12 timestamp from the verified YouTube account of Lex Fridman on Aug 9, 2022, during Fridman’s long-form discussion episode #310. At the beginning of 2022, Fridman was an unknown name around the podcasting scene but has since gained a following of 2.18 million followers. Many have questioned this rapid expansion of Fridman’s viewer base, citing observations of a pattern that implies he and others are part of a special-interest funded social media influence signal boosting construct created by the same Western interests pushing Sinophobic rhetoric through the legacy Western media complex.
Bustamante’s complete fantasy about what happened during the Hong Kong protests was shoe-horned into his discussion with Fridman when the subject turned to America’s interests in Ukraine supposedly being to support “greater democracy”, a platitude repeatedly shown to be false since the first Iraq War. Fridman, a 39-year-old Russian-American MIT graduate, engineer and programmer did not challenge Bustamante’s complete mischaracterization of the Hong Kong protests or that America’s interest in Ukraine is based on altruism.
Unlike Joe Rogan, considered the father of podcasting, Fridman built his subscriber base through some virtue as yet unknown, but most concerning is that he has access to the same caliber of guests as Joe Rogan, including Joe Rogan himself on episode #127. Nothing about Fridman’s sudden social media expansion appears as if it happened organically.
The long-form discussion podcasting phenomenon is one Hong Kong people need to scrutinize more deeply because, as many Westerners continue to lose faith in traditional media, podcasts are what they have turned to. Consisting of mostly independent journalists, former professors, historians, clownish contrarians and cultural icons like Doctor Jordan B. Peterson, these Westerners have sought out the journalistic objectivity the legacy media have long lost. However, finding consistently objective voices in the podcasting arena isn’t an easy task. Navigating the echo chambers, misinformation hustlers, conspiracy-theorists or highly funded special-interest promoters like Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire is a challenge many English-speaking Hong Kong people don’t have the time or the energy to cope with.
But we should because among this fray of social media personalities, there exist corporately-funded productions pretending to be benignly objective and the products of organic growth, spreading unchallenged and unfounded Sinophobic sentiments such as that of Bustamante’s. Such influence is not only spreading at a much faster pace than the legacy media could previously achieve, but is also reaching a much younger, larger and mostly geopolitically uninformed audience.
These political podcasters themselves are divided among ideological lines, but most are focused on some social issues local to the West. However, every once in a while, the subject of China or Russia will invariably come up and the opinions, despite the varying political ideologies, are almost always the same: “China is the rising evil empire that needs to be stopped”, an opinion based on the collective projection of the very Western concept of nation building through conquest, which, in reality, is an aspect of nation building China is not traditionally known for. We only need to study World War II to see that China was the object of imperial Western-aligned conquest, not its subject.
The general flow of this social media mis- or disinformation follows a discernible pattern: A long-form conversation from a charismatic podcaster is then cut into smaller soundbites and segments and spread through other social media platforms. Sometimes these soundbites and segments are just geopolitical musings easily dismissed. Sometimes though, they are assumed to be true by virtue of nothing more than the reputation of the platform and the podcaster on whose show such messaging is delivered.
These social media personalities themselves also gain their followings through a noticeable pattern. They are often first the guests on larger, corporately-funded, professionally-produced shows hosted by podcasters like David Rubin, James O’Keefe, Ben Shapiro or Tim Pool. Pool, a former Vice journalist, is generally thought to be one of the more fact-based and objective podcasters. He hosts the Timcast IRL show, on which he interviews unknown citizen journalists, rising social media personalities and sometimes US politicians. Pool’s viewership is inching toward 720 million views, which creates an almost instant viewer base for whomever he interviews.
Many saw his show as refreshing since his previous commitment to fact-based and verifiable objectivity allowed him to present a diverse range of opinions by hosting guests on his platforms with leanings from across the political spectrum. Then, in early 2019, something interesting happened. Pool, along with the others, suddenly developed Sinophobic opinions. Like with Bustamante’s example above, some of Pool’s benign conversations about some issue affecting Western society would suddenly contain a shoe-horned-in attack on China.
Objective opinions are always open to change when evidence to the contrary is presented, but Pool’s change was too sharp, too fast and lacked any evidence. It was in that moment that the “China bad” narrative began to spread in earnest around the new-media complex, based in the nebulous world of social media. Pool claims the funding for his show is generated through viewer donations and memberships, but his sudden reversal on China’s rise suggests that some other entity is likely also funding his opinions — an entity which has leveraged social media algorithms to create an influence signal boosting construct that has designated China its enemy.
No one knows who ultimately funds people like Tim Pool but many names (from the Western left and right) have been thrown around as possible financiers. The ones that stand out with pockets deep enough to sustain such a construct are Steve Bannon, Dennis Prager of PragerU, brothers Eric and Bret Weinstein, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, George Soros and a return of the war-mongering neocon apparatus that ran the Bush senior and junior presidencies.
Interestingly though, two common factors shared by the names above is that they have all personally expressed Sinophobic rhetoric and, oddly, they all started off being against former president Trump’s presidency before ultimately changing their outward opinion of him. The pattern has been repeated too often, and the opinions repeated almost verbatim too many times, for it all to be mere coincidence. The question now is how Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will affect this influence signal boosting construct.
The author is a writer, columnist and historian based in Hong Kong.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.