Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Yes, Asian Boss planted a deep blue Youtuber and pretended he was a 'man on the street' -- and I want to know why.

Indeed they are.

Update 1/12/22: I talked to the person they were going to hire to do this interview, except he "noped out" when it became clear he was being asked to do something journalistically unethical.

Asian Boss, a YouTube channel that mostly does “vox pop” street interviews of people they say they’ve approached in public, recently came to Taiwan to ask what Taiwanese think of China.

Leaving aside the fact that not even Asian Boss seems to care what Taiwanese think outside of their opinions on China, at least this marks their first serious foray into Taiwan. Or rather, Taipei. They apparently don't have the resources to cover multiple cities.

They film across Asia, sometimes tackling difficult subjects such as the Myanmar coup or the Hong Kong protests, and sometimes doing softball man-on-the-street interviews along the lines of what does the ideal Chinese man look like or what’s fashionable in Taiwan right now. They also do occasional sit-down interviews of specific people of interest to viewers: a model from Myanmar, an American porn star in Japan, the inventor of bubble tea in Taiwan, a defected North Korean spy and more.

Other than the Hong Kong interview, their videos in China come across as far 'softer' than their work anywhere else -- it's all very surface-level, and can kind of feel like folksy Propaganda Lite.
If you want to know what's happening in Uyghur detention camps, Asian Boss is not the place to look. 

It's important, I suppose, to humanize people who have to live under a dehumanizing regime, but it sure does make the CCP look better than it is, especially when it comes to mass surveillance. Chances are that if they really went for meaty stories, they wouldn't be allowed to film there at all.

This was the third time they've come to Taiwan that I could find: the other two were the bubble tea and fashion videos -- nothing hard-hitting.

I’m not here to body-slam Asian Boss or chase them out of the country. I don't know what their intentions were. However, a few things seemed off to me as I watched. Then, something I consider a bombshell — a huge problem that undermines the credibility of this particular video and Asian Boss’s reporting model in general. 

The short of it? They planted an interview with a fairly well-known deep blue Youtuber and presented it as a “vox pop” interview, just someone they approached on the street. 

For those who don't know, "deep blue" means very pro-KMT, generally favoring Chinese identity, closer ties with China and eventual unification with China. Some say that should be China as the ROC, but red/blues exist too -- people who would accept unification with the PRC. They are quite rare, however. 

"Deep green" means very pro-DPP, though there are a constellation of small parties and independent legislators that formed independently of the DPP who hold similar views. This side generally favors Taiwanese identity, sovereignty and (eventually) independence. They don't hate China, they're just not interested in being part of it. Most want to hold off on declaring formal independence, though some want it immediately and believe the existence of the ROC on Taiwan is a form of colonization. 

I'm far more sympathetic to the greens -- as I see it Taiwan is already independent, so any formal declarations, if they are needed, can wait until peace is assured -- but my personal views don't matter much. 

The video starts out saying that this video takes “the accurate pulse of the public” with the voices of "ordinary people". This can't possibly be true, as they're gathering anecdotes -- fluffy human interest stuff. It's not data. It's not bad in and of itself,  but it's not an accurate pulse of anything. We have actual research for that.

They then stress that they have no political affiliation, and get started. 

I wasn't the only one who noticed that one interviewee stood out. Something was just off about him -- he had extreme views but that wasn't it. His interview seemed...different. Guess which one?

The other interviewees seem to have truly been filmed under ‘street’ conditions, with noise, bad lighting, masks and foggy glasses, passers-by and the occasional sub-optimal angles. 

The Youtuber in question, on the other hand, was interviewed in a tree-lined park, with excellent lighting, at a 'good' angle with no mask. Nobody walked by. It was as though a space had been cleared for him. He sported a tan or light brown jacket and spoke without hesitation.

This man had views that are far outside the mainstream in Taiwan. Of course, there are people who agree with him, but might be quiet about their views because they know they’re not popular. However, his comments about Taiwan being a “province under the Republic of China”, Xi Jinping being a “calm man” can only be described as deep blue, if not fringe. He's also wrong about a lot of things, but that could be a post in itself.

I originally assumed the best. I figured that this is someone they happened to approach in that time and place, he happened to be well-spoken and ready to expound on his views, and he happened to be the living embodiment of a deep-blue eyeroll. Okay. Some people do feel that way. It’s possible. I think he's ridiculous but he has the right to his opinion. 

Then, someone I know did a simple thing: he typed “Asian Boss Taiwan” into Facebook search, and guess what came up?

The guy in the tan jacket, posting on Facebook about his interview. He’s a modestly successful YouTuber named Sean (柴Sean你說) with over 110,000 subscribers, with lovely content like “if Taiwanese want independence, why don’t they join the military?”, “Taiwanese now identify differently because of the way they are educated under the DPP” and “let’s not trash on Yen Ching-piao’s son, the bad stuff is all his father’s doing”. From the comments, he appears to have a lot of viewers in China. Someone on the side is commenting in Simplified Chinese that Mainland viewers don't care about the abuse of DPP legislator Kao Chia-yu:

His Facebook page is also straight cringe, no chaser -- taking swipes at the residents of Wanhua for no good reason, and calling COVID the "Wanhua Virus":

Update: soon after I initially published this, I was sent this link to a post on Dcard, where someone was asking how to find people with "deep blue views" for a "foreign Youtube channel". They'd done the interviews and felt it was pretty balanced -- they were explicitly asked to provide a "balance" of views -- but they asked him to find someone who represented that deep blue cohort. 

There's a link to a Google form from Asian Boss, and some replies saying he should go talk to old people.

That's more than a little suspicious.

It's also very strange because they asked this person to go find someone with deep blue views, but not deep green ones. There's nothing in the entire video that I'd call fringe or far out of the mainstream. Why just one side? Isn't that unbalanced?

There is a deep green fringe: the "declare independence now" types, the ones who wave "End ROC Colonization of Taiwan" flags. Yes, I happen to sympathize with them far more than the deep blue fringe, but I recognize they're not mainstream. If you want a "balanced" video, why would you include only the deep blue fringe, but not the deep green?

They weren't represented anywhere in this video, so in addition to not being a "vox pop" video, it's not actually "balanced", either -- if that's what you're going for.

I had thought he seemed a little suspiciously well-prepared and ready to present, though I wonder if someone as well-spoken and well-presented  -- good lighting, great angles, pleasant backdrop --  on the other end of the spectrum, closer to my own views, would have stood out as much to me. We all have our biases, so perhaps not. But I like to think the differences in how he was taped alone tingled a lot of people's spidey senses.

On his Facebook post, Sean said he thought it was going to be in English but they ended up doing it in Chinese — that’s interesting, as it implies they think using Asian languages makes the interviews more authentic. (It can, if interviewees are more comfortable in those languages, but it’s not a stand-in for authenticity). Then he himself asked if it was truly okay to interview him and pretend he was just someone off the street — no links to his YouTube channel, no introduction of who he was. 

Can they really do that? He mused. 

To be honest, from an ethical perspective, they can’t — or at least, they shouldn’t. If you say you are doing "man on the street" interviews, the only proper way forward is to stick to that -- you can't plant people and pretend you found them randomly.

It's amusing, though, that Sean, a comparatively small-time Youtuber, was handed a platform that reaches millions, including lots of Westerners. He had a golden opportunity to construct a narrative where his voice is closer to the center, represents the views of many Taiwanese, or is otherwise not a fringe perspective. All he had to do was not post about the fact that this interview was obviously set up, and I doubt we ever would have found him. Either he didn't think about that, or he did but figured he'd never be caught by anyone who mattered.

Perhaps that's still true. How many people are going to watch that video compared to those who will read this post?

It's also interesting that he agreed to talk to Asian Boss, allowing them to set up this lie that he represents a common set of viewpoints, and when doing so discussed how the media twists narratives to suit their own goals -- all while helping the media twist a narrative! 

That said, I might disagree with every opinion he has, but at least he pointed out that it's not great to seek out a Youtuber and then pass him off as some random pedestrian. Sean seems to have more of a moral code regarding this than Asian Boss! 

It seemed like he got more airtime than the others, too, but I'd have to go back and count the seconds -- perhaps it just seemed that way because this is so painful to watch.

What Asian Boss did here was wrong. It is a lie to say you approached people on the street to see what ordinary folks think regardless of knowledge level, but then plant someone you sought out in your video, to make it seem like extreme views such as his are more popular than they actually are.

That’s a propaganda tactic. A lie. It’s what you do when you want to push a certain narrative, but want it to seem grassroots. It’s unacceptable. 

If you can't find someone with these views in the wild, by approaching people on the street, then that's a sign they aren't particularly common views.

The world isn't a both-sides deal. In Taiwan there is a general consensus, a mainstream. The 'real' videos depict that, the plant distorts it. People want to think Taiwan conforms to their idea that there are a wide range of equally popular and valid views and perspectives, but that's just not the case: the consensus in Taiwan is that, well, Taiwan is Taiwan.

If you do street interviews, you'll get people who lean a but bluer than that, but ultimately it'll snap back to that consensus. Being honest about that is good reporting. 

Wedging such out-of-the-mainstream beliefs in anyway by seeking someone out and then presenting that person as just some guy you found is not. It's manipulation, bordering on misinformation. At the very least, it misleads the viewers.

I reached out to Asian Boss on Twitter and via their website to see if they’d answer a few questions about this, but received no response. 

As I see it, if you want to interview someone like this, you can, but there’s only one appropriate path: move away from the “ordinary people on the street” interview setup and state plainly that you’ve gathered representatives from all segments of the Taiwanese political spectrum. You have to actually do that, though: in addition to moderate voices, you have to find someone as far-out deep green as Sean is deep blue. The closest person in this video was the young man in glasses, and frankly, his views aren't fringe. They're pretty normal.

Then you show that video without subterfuge: we gathered these people because they represent specific things. We did not find them randomly. 

Doing it as they did not only sells a lie to the audience about how they find these views, but how common each view is in the wild. The fact is, you won’t find many people like Sean on the street, because his views are fairly rare. Presenting him as someone you ran into at the park makes it seem like there are a lot more Seans out there than there really are. Filming him mask less, in fantastic light with great angles and backdrops furthers the lie that he is an authoritative voice for what many Taiwanese think. 

Wrong. Everyone knows that. The thing is, they don't care, and you can't force them to.

It moves away from “we looked around and this is what we found” and turns into a constructed narrative. You cannot ethically create the latter and sell it as the former. 

It also skews where the “center” of Taiwanese views on China truly is. If you interview a deep blue YouTuber but have no deep green balance, the “middle” seems more blue than it really is. The actual center is closer to “we don’t want to be part of the PRC and don’t want a war" -- it's not "in fact Taiwanese are Chinese". However, that’s not what comes across in this video. 

Even his own YouTube subscribers commented on his appearance in Asian Boss: 

It does appear that Sean was the only plant, however. Everyone else truly comes across as a ‘vox pop’, and one of the founders of Asian Boss posted recently in the Working in Taiwan Facebook group, asking for students to help them approach people in the street. That video is supposed to have been filmed today, so I'm curious what they'll come out with.

The post implies that they aren’t a “team” of reporters but instead find local helpers for one-off videos. However, it also means they probably do usually approach people on the street. Sean might have been a one-off. A single plant. 

But if they do, in fact, approach people on the street, why plant Sean in there? Why present him as someone you just 'found' when that's not true? Why try to construct a narrative that his views are part of a spectrum of beliefs in Taiwan that you might find in the wild?

Wrong according to you, buddy. But if the people do choose that one day, it will probably be because they can do so without the threat of war from "calm" Xi Jinping!

I have other questions, too. Why do two videos on anti-feminism in South Korea, but no videos (that I can find) talking to Korean feminists? Why present yourself as a “startup” when you’ve been around for almost a decade? Why delete many of your older videos? (Some of the older ones are pretty bad, such as this drawn-out, unfunny prank asking white people their opinions about untrue facts about Asia. Maybe that’s why they deleted others -- dump the low-quality stuff as you grow your brand.) 

They do try to do good as well, however, and seem to get involved in local or personal causes beyond just reporting on them. 

It would be great if Asian Boss could take a look at how they’re producing content now, with an eye toward any ethical issues that could cause them to lose credibility. Be clear about what you’re doing and what it can accomplish. That you are offering anecdotes, not data. If you are interviewing personalities, you need to say so. You can’t present them as people you found on the street. 

At that point, I would welcome more videos from them about Taiwan. Right now, though, I have a lot of questions and very few answers. What's the deal, Asian Boss? Are you ever going to offer an explanation?

There's a good reaction video, too. Useful for the extra context, as well as a way to see the original if Asian Boss realizes their mistake and deletes the original:


Well NCCU's Election Study Center says about 70% of them do, and you don't get to be the dictator who tells them they can't.


J Crother said...

Great findings. There's also a Dcard post from Asian Boss TW staff begging for help in finding someone willing to be interviewed who is pro-unification. https://www.dcard.tw/f/ask/p/237552340 It is dated a whole month before the video is published so all indicators it is genuine.

swan said...


If you read this article

"It should be noted that many of those interviewed in the video did express pro-green (DPP) opinions. Asian Boss has yet to respond to Taiwan News' request for comment."

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Many did, but that doesn't take away from the fact that they deliberately planted someone with radical views and portrayed him as some guy they found on the street. (It's not wrong to interview someone with radical views. It is wrong to pretend he was a random street interview because they didn't like the consensus or central view they found, which is Taiwan doesn't think it's part of China.)