Primitive Technology and the bizarre depths of YouTube in Southeast Asia

 

How have these bizarre videos of half-naked boys in Southeast Asia voraciously devouring exotic animals while making monkey noises gotten hundreds of millions of views on YouTube? 

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UPDATE (July 30): Within the last 24 hours, YouTube has taken down several of the channels featuring young boys that we highlighted in this article, including Primitive Technology KH, Primitive Boy and Primitive Wildlife. The takedown notice says they were “terminated due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube’s policy against spam, deceptive practices and misleading content or other Terms of Service violations.”

You can read more about that and the rest of our investigation into the origin of these videos in Part Two of this series.

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Part 1: Channel surfing into madness

One of the things we pride ourselves on at Coconuts is our Internet research skills. We track down the origins of obscure videos and explain inscrutable memes in a variety of languages on a daily basis. But, we admit, we still get stumped on the regular while researching random web weirdness. 

Usually, those stories involve online ephemera too small and transient to pin down, like an incendiary social media post that gets deleted before anybody could screenshot it, for example. But the subject of this article is the first time we’ve ever come across something that has such a massive internet presence — in the form of hundreds of YouTube videos, many with millions upon millions of views — for which we could find virtually no concrete information online.

Trying to find answers led us down a rabbit hole of research into the underbelly of YouTube, a place where logic and humanity seem to distort themselves in service of an algorithm that amplifies extreme impulses. In the end, we made contact with some of the people making these videos, but what we found still leaves us with many questions that have unsettling implications.

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For us, it began with a video of two men building a swimming pool. 

The video shows two men using “primitive technology” to build the pool without any modern tools or equipment. It’s straightforward and pretty neat, right? After a member of our team stumbled on the above video, we became interested in finding out about the builders behind it and if they lived in one of the countries that Coconuts covers (Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Hong Kong and Singapore).

A quick Google search led us to this article in the South China Morning Post about the burgeoning YouTube sub-genre of “primitive technology” videos. It said the channel that produced the pool video above, Primitive Building, is based in Cambodia. But they weren’t the original —- that distinction belongs to the channel Primitive Technology.

The original Primitive Technology channel, started by Australian craftsman John Plant in May 2015, features videos depicting Plant creating impressive-looking shelters and structures without any modern tools whatsoever as well as using similar “stone age” technology to make tools and weapons. His videos have earned hundreds of millions of views, an estimated US$500,000 a year in ad revenue, and even a book deal.

It’s not hard to understand why his videos have so many views. They’re mesmerizing, even if you’re not a hardcore survivalist. Their style is as minimalist as the subject matter. With no music, repetitive action and no talking (though Plant does provide detailed instructions and information on most videos via optional subtitles). Some people have described them as calming, and not just in the sense that their content could help you feel less panicked if you suddenly found yourself flung into the wilderness.

But we decided to focus on another channel mentioned in the SCMP article, Primitive My Village (which we’ll abbreviate to PMV — there are a lot of YouTube channels with the word “primitive” in them, as you’ll soon find out), which was identified as Indonesian. The author of that article kindly let us know he had been unable to get in contact with the channel’s owner, but said there was something in the videos that led him to believe they were Indonesian.

PMV does not feature videos of people building things. Although some videos include a bit of hunting or fishing (most of which seem staged), they are not about showing actual primitive technology, building or survival techniques. The primary focus is, instead, almost all on shots of boys eating different kinds of exotic animals, with a disturbing focus paid to the act and sounds of chewing. 

Bizarrely, the boys never say a word in the videos, instead only making ape-like noises, which sound like a calculated approximation of the sounds one might stereotypically expect a “jungle boy” to make.

The videos struck us as unsettling, maybe even disturbing. But we still might have been able to dismiss it as random YouTube weirdness were it not for the fact that the channel had hundreds of similar videos, and that many of them had earned millions of views. The video below, for example, has 35 million views (note that PMV has been renamed SEN Channel in the last few weeks after we began researching this story — we’re not sure why).

Thirty-five million is an amazingly high view count for any YouTube video. As a point of comparison, the most viewed video out of the 2,700 or so on Vice’s YouTube channel (“Making The World’s First Male Sex Doll | Slutever,” in case you were wondering) has 43 million views.

How on Earth could a video like that get so many views, we wondered? What kind of person would want to watch something like that, let alone millions? Troublingly, the comments were turned off on all of the channel’s videos, so we couldn’t even get a sense of who was watching. 

The mind can go to dark places guessing the answers to such questions, especially given some of the recent controversies YouTube has faced. Just in June, the New York Times and other outlets wrote about Harvard researchers who had found that the platform’s recommendation algorithm had referred users to home videos of children in bathing suits after they had watched sexually-themed content

We also learned that, in February, YouTube decided to disable comments on almost all videos featuring children after controversy arose surrounding predatory comments that were systematically being placed on them (which at least explained why the comments had been turned off on PMV’s videos).

Just yesterday, the Pew Research Center released a study finding that YouTube videos that feature children under the age of 13 receive more than three times as many views as videos without children. And even though they found only a small number of English-language videos that were targeted at children, they still received more views on average than videos not targeted at children. In fact, the study found that any video that starred a child who appeared to be under the age of 13 “received nearly three times as many views on average as other types of videos.”

It also struck us that there were parallels between the primitive kids eating videos and another utterly bizarre YouTube phenomenon that has been dubbed Elsagate. Named for the heroine of Disney megahit Frozen, Elsagate describes a wide-range of disturbing videos — most featuring Elsa as well as other famous children’s characters like Spider-Man and Peppa Pig — that appear to be aimed at kids yet feature disturbing and inappropriate themes including sexual situations, drugs, and violence. The TED talk below by writer James Bridle, who also wrote one of the first exposés on the topic, gives an utterly unsettling overview of the issue.

Elsagate videos encompass both crudely animated CGI affairs as well as live-action versions featuring adults wearing cheap Halloween costumes. Like the primitive eating videos, the Elsagate ones all seem to be made incredibly cheaply, pumped out quickly, and yet still attract crazy high view counts in many cases (the video below, for example, has more than 19 million views).

A writer for The Verge argued that Elsagate videos focused on “…Freudian concerns which young children find endlessly fascinating, frightening, and hilarious” such as peeing, pooping, kissing and pregnancy. We wondered if the focus on mastication in the eating videos could be a form of Id-based motivation, perhaps appealing to a latent oral fixation.

But all of the connections we were drawing between the PMV videos and the other YouTube controversies were completely hypothetical, much like the theories about what was motivating the production of a still endless supply of Elsagate videos. Despite being widely reported on since 2017, the Elsagate videos still largely remain a mystery, with very little known about who is producing the disturbing content or why.

And without knowing the “who,” it is almost impossible to truly learn the “why.”

That presented a real problem for our research because there is virtually no information about PMV outside of YouTube. Their web presence beyond the streaming site seemed nearly non-existent beyond a few Facebook and Twitter accounts that seemed like they could have been bot-generated. The only mainstream media story they’d ever been mentioned in was that SCMP article. Their YouTube “About” page lists Singapore as their location, which seemed patently untrue (although the slim possibility that it was true was also intriguing). But we couldn’t find any actual contact information or even a single name of someone associated with the channel. 

We emailed Tu Nguyen, communications manager at YouTube APAC, to see if there was any way they could help us get in contact with the people behind PMV. We also asked her if they could let us know definitively if PMV was really based in Singapore, as they claimed, and if their video’s depictions of children playing with alligators and other wild animals were acceptable under YouTube community standards.

She responded: “We can’t disclose the location of these channels as they’re private data. And we unfortunately can’t get into the details of our policies and can’t comment on specific videos or channels.”

So we went back to the videos looking for any cultural details that might give away where they were being filmed. But, since the boys never really talk and they’re set out in the jungle, finding clues to their location proved very difficult.

But we did notice an odd commonality among their videos — they all included the same copy-and-pasted phrase in their descriptions, one with some singular misspellings: “Hi to day i wantto show you about videos“.

It seemed likely that any videos that featured that particular phrase might be connected to PMV. A search for it did indeed reveal something: many more channels featuring young boys devouring game, some with videos with even more massive view counts than PMV. 

The top channel in the results, Primitive Technology KH (PTKH), had a video with 134 million views. That’s a staggering view count. Once again, to put that in perspective, millions more allegedly watched the video below than any of the top videos made by Vice, the original Primitive Technology channel (63 million for “Tiled Roof Hut”) or Buzzfeed (75 million for “If Disney Princes Were Real”).

Scrolling down through the results revealed that there was a seemingly never-ending supply of these videos, and many of them had view counts in the millions. Social Blade’s YouTube earning estimator guesses that PTKH could earn $641 – $10.2K monthly in YouTube ad revenue based on their traffic. However, we haven’t seen any advertisements running in front of their videos, leading us to suspect they had been demonetized at some point.

It seemed pretty clear, based not just on the “i wantto” phrase but also the extreme similarity of the videos’ content, that the people behind PMV also produced PTKH as well as at least two other channels: Primitive Boy and Primitive Wildlife

But again, we couldn’t find any concrete contact information for any of them and there didn’t seem to be a single media story, blog or even social media post that was more than remotely aware of this underground YouTube juggernaut.

However, the KH in PTKH did lead us to suspect that they were based in Cambodia, KH being a common abbreviation for Khmer. That, along with a search for another bizarre phrase that seemed to appear in a lot of the video titles (“smart boy”) then led us to even more videos, some of which explicitly stated they were Cambodian. 

The idea that a channel creating videos like this could earn over US$10,000 a month in Cambodia, a country where the average per capita income is about US$114, seemed to explain why so many of these videos were being produced. But it couldn’t explain why so many people were watching them.

Narrowing our focus to Cambodia did, however, help us make a major breakthrough. Through a chance connection, we were able to make contact with the producers of one of the country’s many primitive technology-themed channels.

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You can read more about that and the rest of our investigation into the origin of these videos in Part Two of this series.

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One thought on “Primitive Technology and the bizarre depths of YouTube in Southeast Asia

  1. Pretty clear it is Cambodian – the kids speak a strongly accented Khmer in at least one of the videos (when “rescuing” some kittens from a snake).

    While I understand the concern, the article seems a little heavily focussed on assumptions of abuse and that there might be something sinister at work in the creation of these videos. Spend more than a few months or weeks in Cambodia and you’ll be well aware that in everyday life the areas where dividing lines are drawn between adult and child life don’t adhere to those elsewhere. I expect this is the case just about anywhere in the world where necessity puts to work, from an early age, any hands capable of contributing to productive labour. They’re not adhering to Western norms or health and safety expectations. But its a bit arrogant to imply they should or that our safeguards on a “healthy” upbringing are necessarily better.

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