"A younger, fandom-driven nationalism"
Read to the end for a real good Weird Al video
The View From The Other Side Of The Great Firewall
Internationally, Russian state media is leaning into the biolabs conspiracy theory, which claims that Ukraine was developing COVID variants at locations that are now being targeted by missile strikes. This is, of course, unfounded bull shit, but it has given the Trump wing of the Republican party a way to support Putin's invasion of Ukraine. And leading the charge on the biolab narrative is Fox News' Tucker Carlson. According to a leaked memo from the Kremlin obtained by Mother Jones, Russian state media has noticed and are now promoting Carlson's broadcasts.
This has created a confusing moment for the MAGA-brained extremists who hang out in the backwaters of the western world's internet. QAnon supporters are beginning to create frameworks that could allow their followers to not only support Russia, but, if China decides to help Russia, China, as well. I imagine the cognitive dissonance must be literally excruciating for these people at this point. But this has also led to a new central question: How exactly does China fit into the info war?
Getting a temperature read on a billion internet users, locked behind a firewall, using heavily-censored social platforms is, obviously, not easy, but we do have some data. Jennifer Pan, an associate professor at Stanford focusing on China and authoritarianism, was part of a group that analyzed half a million Weibo posts from the last month and found that only about 50% of posts about the invasion blamed the conflict on NATO aggression. It's not a monolith, but that is a pretty big chunk of internet users who are at least slightly aligned with Russia. It's prevalent enough that Wang Jixian, a Chinese citizen who refuses to leave Ukraine, is now vlogging through the invasion, trying to convince Chinese nationalists back home that this is Putin’s fault.
According to Tianyu M. Fang, the co-founder of the essential Chaoyang Trap House newsletter, which covers Chinese web culture, strict government censorship and self-censorship make it difficult to find coherent narratives on a platform like Weibo, which is China’s main social platform. “My view is that despite overwhelming official narratives in these online spaces, individuals don’t have to accept the dominant reading — rather, they take various negotiated positions,” he said. “Subversiveness is less visible to outsiders, but it’s hard to miss it if you’re on the Chinese web.”
China’s internet doesn’t look that different from America’s. The biggest app in China is WeChat, which is like mega WhatsApp. Meanwhile, Weibo is the country’s discourse arena and functions like the missing link between Myspace and Twitter. Other big Chinese apps to know are TikTok’s sister app Douyin, which is, well, TikTok’s sister app, and BilliBilli, which is like if Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, and Crunchyroll were all the same app. Douyin videos get reposted a lot to Weibo and BilliBilli and WeChat is largely regarded as the endpoint for the Chinese meme cycle because it’s, for the most part, private. According to Fang, state-owned publications like Xinhua or People’s Daily tend to establish official narratives when it comes to politics, with smaller media outlets and influencers falling in line. (Chinese media has had embeds with Russia’s military.)
Those narratives are then socially enforced by the country’s hypernationalist troll armies. “Like Diba,” Fang said. “Known for doxing supposedly ‘anti-China’ forces and launching ‘sticker pack’ wars on Taiwanese Facebook pages, but they don’t need to be covert when many of their campaigns are either praised or tacitly approved by the government.” Fang also said that there’s an online cult that’s not too dissimilar to QAnon that worships Guo Wengui, the Chinese billionaire that’s very good friends with Steve Bannon.
The hyperstructure of Chinese social media, just like American social platforms, also rewards nationalism financially. Journalist Tony Lin posted a great thread last week looking at Chinese social media has commercialized heavily, forcing platforms like Weibo to optimize towards “a younger, fandom-driven nationalism.” According to Lin, the crackdown on Hong Kong was a real turning point, transforming anti-democracy content is an extremely lucrative business.
If you want to see how this "commercialized online Chinese nationalism" works, Han Yang, who tweets under the name @polijunkie_aus, shared a fascinating thread last week from inside a WeChat group for Chinese migrants living in Australia. The term Yang uses is "little pinkies," which is a newer Chinese nationalist cyber army.
The most visible part of this Chinese nationalism machine, at least for Americans, are the "wolf warriors". The term is usually used to describe Chinese diplomats who love to talk shit on Twitter, but their very specific posting style has spread to users and accounts affiliated with Chinese state media, as well. The most popular wolf warrior is Lijian Zhao, the deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has 1.2 million followers on Twitter and, basically, invented the form. But here’s a recent example of what I’m talking about, which was posted this week by Chen Weihua, EU bureau chief of China Daily.
The best way I could describe my personal reaction to a typical wolf warrior tweet is, basically, that GIF of a very conflicted Larry David. It’s like, yes, I agree that the US should not be allowed to hijack the world, but, like, why is this guy, specifically, saying it?
According to Fang, for a long time, their main function within Chinese social media was to have their tweets translated and shared back on local platforms. Which, I suppose, would make their tweets like the equivalent of spraying Chinese nationalist graffiti inside a Walmart.
“It’s very common to see tweets from Chinese diplomats’ being translated and shared on Chinese platforms,” he told me. “These performances gain a lot of popularity on the Chinese web, though they’ve likely caused more damage to China’s reputation abroad.”
But the viral content economy around Chinese nationalism isn’t just fertile ground for Russian disinfo. Last week, Hua Chunying, another wolf warrior working at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted, “The US could easily prove its innocence on bio-labs by giving direct & honest answers to three questions: What was the US Embassy in Kyiv trying to hide by hastily deleting documents from its website?”
And then, a day later, in Chinese this time, the country’s state media shared Carlson’s biolab segment.
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r/VolunteersForUkraine Faces Reality
Russia’s military this week claimed to have killed over a hundred “foreign mercenaries” in a missile strike. The target was a training facility in Yavoriv. The missile strike has caused chaos for the users on the r/VolunteersForUkraine subreddit.
The subreddit has about 42,000 members, but has completely fallen apart following the attack, which, as the DFR Lab’s Emerson T. Brooking put it, “may have been the largest mass-casualty event to affect a single subreddit.”
Making matters worse, following the missile strike, mods for the subreddit began removing any posts about it. “The official number has been going down from 200 to 35, but now officially it never happened, since every time it is posted here it is censored,” as one user wrote.
It’s not unusual to see internet hype sour into mod drama. A similar story played out last month with the Great Resignation subreddit r/antiwork. But it is, at the very least, jarring to see this kind of thing happen within the context of an active war. Users spent the immediate moments after the attack blaming each other for bragging about their training on social media and accusing each other of joining the Ukrainian foreign legion “for clout”.
But Ukrainian recruitment programs aren’t just running into the cruel and trivializing nature of the internet on Reddit. A pretty shocking recruitment scam running on Facebook’s ad library was caught this week, as well. I have more on that at the end of today’s newsletter.
The Mega-Popular Netflix Movies No One Talks About
My friend Julia Alexander, a senior analyst for Parrot Analytics, had a great thread yesterday about how little online conversation there’s been around Netflix releases like Red Notice and The Adam Project. Both are very slick and well-made Ryan Reynolds vehicles that, maybe 15 years ago (maybe), would have probably done pretty well in theaters (maybe), but have bizarres lives on Netflix. They’ve been monster successes in terms of watch time, but culturally, essentially do not exist. Julia cites fandom engines like Tumblr, TikTok, and Archive Of Our Own, but I can confirm this is also true for YouTube. My YouTube algorithm is laser-focused on channels that give sad millennial men in their 30s overly-analytical content about genre entertainment and I did not see a single thing about The Adam Project.
So what’s the deal? Well, my hypothesis is that movies like The Adam Project and Red Notice prove that major studios, including Netflix, still don’t actually understand the key things that make franchises work in a post-fandom world, even though, hilariously, it’s actually pretty simple. If you want your franchise to work as a big topic on social media, regardless of characters, or story, or cinematography, or anything else, it has to be something that can be turned into content itself. The easiest way to do this, aside from, like, good writing lol, is to fill it with “shippable” character relationships or load it up with easter eggs and fan-theory-able world-building. Marvel’s Loki is a perfect example of this. The other route is the Breaking Bad or Sopranos model, which is, interestingly enough, also true for recent shows like Yellow Jackets or Euphoria, which is to make something so outrageously dark that making memes about it is inherently funny.
What’s weird is that Netflix has an entire division that turns its properties into iterative online content, but it seems like they still haven’t quite figured out how to connect these two worlds. Squid Game, incidentally, nails all of this, but I’m not sure Netflix gets the credit.
The Inspiring Story Behind The Word “Umpteenth”
Kahoot! Vs. The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline
Kahoot! is an educational gaming platform and it has a feature called “kahoots,” which is basically a quiz engine. Apparently, it currently bans the phrase “trans-Alaskan pipeline” from public kahoots. At first, users thought this was because the word “trans” was flagged as mature content, but, according to the platform’s official Twitter account, the real reason is even weirder than that.
It seems someone at Kahoot! found the phrase “trans-Alaskan pipeline” on Urban Dictionary, which is WILDLY NSFW, and just assumed that it was a real thing that everyone knew? And then flagged the term as mature content based on that.
A Good Tweet
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If you’ve never heard of Every, I did a split newsletter with Every’s Nathan Baschez last year. They publish essays analyzing and explaining new ideas in productivity, strategy, Web3, and the creator economy. It's published by a collective of thoughtful and experienced operators in tech like Li Jin, Nathan Baschez, and Nat Eliason. It’s great stuff.
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P.S. here’s a real good Weird Al video.
BONUS: Who Is Paying For Ukrainian Legion Recruitment Ads On Facebook?
Facebook ads for the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine” were first spotted by Liz Carolan, the founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative. They were running in Ireland on Facebook. Please don’t scan that QR code.
Facebook has since removed the ads, telling Politico’s Mark Scott that they were removed for “impersonation”. I spoke to Carolan about the ads, which you can check out after the paywall below.