Not so FunForLouis: how influential is an influencer?

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Image credit: Reuters/KCNA

The YouTube community is never short of controversy and this week is no exception. One of its top creators has been shrouded in negativity, as headlines such as “YouTube Stars Are Now Being Used for North Korean Propaganda” have circulated worldwide.

The headlines have come after popular British Youtuber Louis Cole, or FunForLouis, documented his recent trip to North Korea. Cole’s YouTube channel boasts an impressive 1.8 million followers, and is a hub for daily vlogs of his travels around the world — a format that has successfully transformed him into an online celebrity, with a lifestyle fueled by brand sponsorship.

Before Cole left for his trip to North Korea, he told his followers that he wanted to focus on the “positive” aspects, such as the people of North Korea, that are often ignored by the media. Presumably, the same media that has since accused him of working for Kim Jong-Un.

But the sentiment has not only come from the media — Cole’s followers and thousands of others have found themselves watching the vlogs, commenting on the exclusion of political talk from Louis. The widespread outrage begs a question about how influential Youtube “influencers” actually are. Do the media and commenters truly believe that a vlog showing Cole visiting a North Korean water park and military museum will mask the deep issues that the country faces, and encourage doe-eyed millennials to suddenly buy plane tickets to the country on mass?

We were never going to see vlogs of executions and other harrowing reports from Cole — a YouTuber, and not “an investigative journalist”, as he explains himself. The ignorance of posting only the “positive” parts is surely just a product of the fact that Cole was welcomed into a country which famously abuses human rights, and he was allowed to film it. Of course it was planned. Of course he was only exposed to certain parts.

Whilst it was at first unclear how the trip came about, a spokesperson for Cole has now released a statement that accompanied a response video from Louis himself, that denies the trip was paid for by the North Korean government. The 33-year-old’s feature on North Korean surfer chicks and BBQs on the beach seems so far away from the issues surrounding the country, it is hard to believe he is actually in the same place where the leader is to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The vlogs have been condemned by Human Rights Watch for undermining the work of journalists who have exposed the conditions faced by North Korean citizens. And with an audience of over 1.8 million, how much should this political weight be dealt with by Louis Cole? How influential is an influencer?