A bipartisan group of US Senators and House Members slammed Disney earlier this month after it was revealed the company thanked the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and various state propaganda agencies in the credits of its live-action remake of Mulan.
Several of these agencies, it was pointed out, stand accused of oppressing China’s Uyghur population—Turkic-speaking Muslims native to Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
“Disney’s apparent cooperation with officials of the People’s Republic of China who are most responsible for committing atrocities — or for covering up those crimes — is profoundly disturbing,” the senators and representatives wrote to Disney CEO Bob Chapek.
The revelation is disturbing.
After all, a mere two months ago, NPR noted that a new report concluded China’s actions against the Uyghur population — which includes mass sterilization, compulsory abortions, and forced birth control — meets the United Nations’ definition of genocide. The author of that report, Adrian Zenz, told NPR China’s oppression of the Uyghur population is perhaps the single largest incarceration of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust.
“I have long argued that the atrocity in the region is a cultural genocide, not a literal genocide,” said Zenz, a German anthropologist. “I was able to uncover dedicated policies by Beijing in the region to systematically suppress birthrates and depress population growth. I uncovered evidence that the Uighurs are subject to internment in camps if they violate birth control policies, have too many children.”
Critics pointed out that the film, which was released September 4 for streaming on Disney+ for $30, specifically praised the police bureau in Turpan, a city in eastern Xinjiang that has a large Uighur population.
“Devastatingly, Disney’s support amounts to collaboration and enables repression,” Rayhan Asat, an ethnic Uighur attorney in Washington whose younger brother has been imprisoned in Xinjiang, told The New York Times. “Those who claim to champion freedom in the world cannot afford to ignore such complicity.”
Many apparently agree with Ms. Asat. Mulan was widely boycotted, and the film flopped in both China and the US, bringing in just $57 million worldwide in its first two weeks despite its $200 million budget.
Out of Frame and Chinese Genocide
The intersection of cultural genocide, liberty, and a blockbuster Disney movie made the topic an ideal fit for Out of Frame, the video series produced by FEE’s Sean Malone that explores art, pop culture and freedom.
The Out of Frame episode “Is Disney Praising Chinese Genocide!?” was released on September 17 and quickly took off. The video amassed nearly 30,000 views in the first 48 hours. It had a great clickthrough rate, high retention, and a superb like-to-dislike ratio (it currently stands at 5.3k likes and 64 dislikes).
But then something strange happened. In spite of such a spectacular launch, the pageviews suddenly flatlined.
The video appears to have been throttled by YouTube. In a tweet, YouTube producer and analyst Matt Tabor (Vsauce2, The Create Unknown, FEE) shows precisely where it happened.
Yes, @YouTube engages in censorship. An @OutofFrameFEE vid critical of China and Disney has been CRUSHED. Strong CTR (14%), great retention (66%), tons of likes (99%), high engagement.— Tabor 🇦🇲 (@TaborTCU) September 22, 2020
It exploded, then @TeamYouTube hit the switch.
Maybe it's YouTube praising Chinese genocide. pic.twitter.com/dj6hNy0Z5a
To be clear, YouTube, a private company owned by Google, is free to censor or throttle videos on its platform. It’s their property. So they get to decide what clips get removed, which content gets amplified, and what gets throttled.
It’s also no secret that YouTube does this. In 2017, YouTube announced it was taking steps to “tackle the problem of violent extremism online,” which included new efforts to flag and remove speech the company deemed extremist or violent. Two years later, the company expanded those guidelines further in an effort to tackle hate, inadvertently “catching educators, journalists, and activists in the crossfire.”
The censorship grew worse. Physicians and hospital leaders who spoke out on COVID-19, calling for governments to ease the unprecedented lockdowns that were causing immense collateral damage, had their videos removed by YouTube, in contrast to Facebook. This was part of YouTube’s policy to remove information that was problematic, such as health information that did not align with the World Health Organization.
More recently, YouTube was widely accused of kowtowing to Beijing after it was discovered comments critical of the CCP were being automatically deleted. The discovery, which was widely reported, prompted an internal investigation.
“The company said the filtering appeared to be ‘an error’ amid a greater reliance on automated systems during the coronavirus pandemic,” The Guardian reported, “because its human reviewers have been sent home.”
YouTube has deleted every comment I ever made about the Wumao (五毛), an internet propaganda division of the Chinese Communist Party. Who at Google decided to censor American comments on American videos hosted in America by an American platform that is already banned in China?— Palmer Luckey (@PalmerLuckey) May 26, 2020
YouTube is already banned in China, so it’s unclear why YouTube would want to remove comments critical of the CCP. But that invites another question: why throttle a YouTube video asking if Disney supports Chinese genocide?
The answer might have less to do with China and more to do with Disney. In 2018, it was announced that Disney and Google had inked a huge ad partnership that gave Google access to all of Disney’s top channels, including Marvel, ABC, and ESPN.
Disney had dumped Comcast for Google, who took over all digital video and display advertising.
"Disney and Google share a passion for bringing quality content and information to everyone, everywhere," wrote Philipp Schindler, Google's Chief Business Officer, in an announcement. "With this new relationship, Disney will bring its entire global digital video and display business onto the Google Ad Manager, which will serve as its core ad technology platform."
Free Speech and Censorship
I’d be lying if I told you I knew why YouTube appears to be throttling our video that explores Disney’s thank you to the Chinese government as it engages in cultural genocide.
Maybe YouTube is coddling China. Maybe they are protecting their client, Disney, as a favor. Maybe the video triggered an algorithm that flagged the content as a form of “violent extremism.”
The fact that all these scenarios seem plausible shows that the digital age has made us too comfortable with the suppression of speech. Let’s not forget that YouTube isn’t just some company. It’s a publishing platform, meaning it’s a platform designed for disseminating speech (and it’s the largest one in the world).
We’re not talking about a situation of whether you can tell your boss she’s a cotton headed ninny muggins and not get fired. We’re talking about the ability to freely share ideas on a user-generated platform without having speech suppressed.
By targeting certain speech for censorship, Google fails George Orwell’s basic test.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear,” Orwell wrote.
Many people, including some libertarians, seem to believe that if the government is not suppressing speech, it’s not truly censorship. This is a mistake.
Nazi book-burning parties were not state-orchestrated events, but they were wrong and dangerous nevertheless because they were illiberal and totalitarian in nature. Instead of using state coercion, they used political will and fanaticism to scrub ideas and authors from public discourse.
Constitutional Americans would do well to remember that the true source of liberty does not rest in dusty parchments.
“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women,” wrote the great American judge Learned Hand; “when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”
YouTube’s steady creep into greater and greater censorship of user content to combat “hate” shows that Dan Sanchez was right in 2017 when he pointed out that once censorship begins, it becomes difficult to stop.
“Once you start making exceptions to a universal principle/general rule, you begin to undermine it; it becomes easier to make further exceptions,” Sanchez wrote. “If the hate speech of Nazis are to be restricted, why not the hate speech of traditionalist conservatives? If the violent, seditious rhetoric of Nazis are too dangerous to allow, why should the violent, seditious rhetoric of communists be tolerated, or any fundamental criticism of the government?”
The last few years have shown this to be true. Once Silicon Valley opened the door to policing political speech, the drift toward more and more censorship has been palpable.
What began as restricting “violence and hate” has morphed into protecting people from speech they don’t want to hear—like inconvenient truths such as the fact that that Disney thanked departments in Communist China that are literally enabling cultural genocide.
In other words, in the matter of just a few years, YouTube went from restricting speech containing “violence and hate” to apparently suppressing information connecting Disney to actual violence and hate in China—the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust.
A rich irony indeed, but one that would not have surprised George Orwell.