‘He’d physically hit me’: What lies behind those child and animal viral videos
Ever watched videos of children performing a feat, or funny cat videos? Some of their creators go to great lengths you may not have imagined. The series Beyond The Viral Video explores the dark side of internet fame.
HENAN and SEATTLE: Schoolboy Wang Kai possesses the ability to throw playing cards with so much force that they can slice through vegetables and fruits. A useless skill, some may say.
But this 11-year-old’s card-throwing videos, numbering over 700, have been shared by 60 million people worldwide, propelling him to internet stardom since four years ago.
His subscribers have swelled to more than 200,000, while the click-through advertising revenue from his library of videos earns him nearly RMB2,000 (S$407) a month, half of his family’s monthly income in Henan province, China.
The boy is under pressure to maintain this income stream. “I do know that my dad uploads new content daily. Sometimes he’d be filming my videos,” he said.
“I can feel his pressure too. My dad’s pretty strict with me. Sometimes when I’m not performing that well, he’d physically hit me.”
It is just one example of how going viral is now serious business.
If you enjoy videos of children with physical skills or funny cat videos, have you ever wondered how far people will go to make videos of their children or their pets go viral, to cash in on their popularity?
Or whether everything you see is as it seems? To find out, the series Beyond The Viral Video tracks down some of these internet sensations in China.
It also uncovers the ugly realities of some of these videos, involving children or animals, and what their creators do to up the ante and stay competitive.
KEEPING IT REAL
Certainly, content creators have a ready audience, as people’s appetite for online videos has grown. On YouTube alone, a billion hours of content are watched every day.
And the number of video content hours uploaded every minute to this platform grew by around 40 per cent between 2014 and last year.
On Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok in China, half of the top 20 child videos in the first half of this year featured children performing a feat.
Take, for example, the video of a 13-month-old Chinese girl riding a hoverboard.
“There’s a stereotype that kids in China can do a lot of magical things,” said Curtin University senior research fellow (internet studies) Crystal Abidin. And this “quality of exoticism is often what attracts us to internet celebrity.”
But as the stakes get higher in the viral video world, so has the number of viral hoaxes. For every adorable, funny and amazing video that is real, there is another out there that is fake.
One that has been seen 71 million times is the video of four-year-old Lin Lin, who lives in Jilin city in northeast China and who can parallel park and reverse his motorised toy car into a sliver of space.
But is he bona fide? To prove that he is, he reversed his car between rows of eggs with precision in front of the Beyond The Viral Video crew.
“I know I’m famous, but I don’t know what it means to be famous,” he declared.
Meanwhile, the video of toddler Long Yixin gliding on a hoverboard has been viewed more than 10 million times.
When CNA filmed her, she was already two and a half years old. And for the entire hour she was playing with the hoverboard, not a single time did she fall.
Her mother, Wang Ao’ao, said Yixin was able to control the hoverboard after ten minutes of playing with it.
“We thought it was rather impressive, so I quickly shared it with my circle of friends (to) show off my daughter,” she added.
Wang Kai also displayed his talent in front of the television cameras. He sliced not only vegetables and fruits, but also a drink can with just a poker card. His internet fame has led him to dream even bigger.
“My goal is to challenge the Guinness World Records when I’m older,” he said.
He picked up card flicking as a six-year-old hoping to win back his mother after she left the family. She did get in touch with him subsequently, but did not return.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN
Creating a viral video is not easy, however, even for talented children.
For his training in the past four years, Wang Kai has used up some 400 boxes of cards. His father, Wang Dongqiang, said the boy found it “unbearable” at first and complained about wrist pains.
“I told him that he can’t simply give up because of the initial pain,” said Wang. “The persistence needed isn’t just over a month or two; it’s over a year or two.”
In contrast, two-year-old Xiao Tian did not have to practise anything much to become a minor internet celebrity. A video of him picking up a bottle lying on the ground and then binning it garnered more than 17 million views.
“How many people would actually pick up a bottle they see on the ground? So the things we did in the video resonated with the people’s hearts,” said his uncle Xiao Yang.
It was all by design, however. CNA found out that Xiao Tian’s father and uncle are video professionals who have spun the boy’s success.
Realising that videos showing children being obedient or demonstrating civic consciousness would do well, they film him doing these acts every day, with candy as an incentive.
Then there is Liu Limei in Hunan province. She could carve works of art on vegetables when she was six years old, and her viral videos resulted in a windfall for her family last year.
“During live streams, the fans could give tips of between RMB200 to RMB300. It was unbelievable,” said her father, Liu Guocheng.
Virtual gifts also flooded into their Kuaishou (a Chinese video-sharing app) account, and they raised close to RMB660,000 on a separate crowdfunding platform.
The money came in useful, as Limei suffers from kidney problems and her brother has leukaemia. The donations went towards their medical treatment in Beijing.
But people stopped donating this year, and the family is scraping by once again. Although Limei has tried to update her skills with the paring knife, she is still waiting for her next viral success.
NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED?
Child videos are not the only ones, however, that can hit pay dirt.
Consider this: Jiff Pom, a pomeranian dog, has more than 21.1 million fans on TikTok, 10.5 million followers on Instagram and reportedly earns up to £35,000 (S$62,000) per Instagram post.
But as the rewards have risen, so has the competition. And with the lure of a big pay day, there may be no telling how far owners will go to make their pet a viral success.
Seattle film-maker Will Braden, whose day job as the curator of the Cat Video Fest involves watching some 15,000 videos every year, must make sure that no cats were harmed in the videos he selects.
And it is getting to be a daily challenge. In one video of a cat jumping through snow outside a house, he thought the video was cropped in a strange way.
“I looked a little bit more into it, and sure enough, in the wider version of it, someone just … throws the cat through the snow,” he said.
“It’s a lot of work in terms of following up on things and back stories, but it’s incredibly important … to speak with the people who shot the video.”
In another viral animal video, a poodle in China is constantly filmed walking on its hind legs. But many YouTube users have criticised this for being cruel to the dog.
“That’s a no-no because that causes a lot of pain, especially in future,” said professional dog trainer Joy Chia-Ling.
“You can train the dog to walk on his hind legs. But because dogs have a very high pain threshold … they wouldn’t tell you immediately that it’s painful.”
In another popular video, a slow loris seemingly giggles in response to being tickled. But the animal was actually raising its arms in self-defence, pointed out Oxford Brookes University professor in primate conservation Anna Nekaris.
WATCH: Some ugly truths behind cute viral pet videos (4:15)
When a loris is threatened, it puts up its arms to combine venom from the oil in its arm and from its saliva to bite a potential predator, she said.
“In the video, we see an animal in a very defensive position, not in a submissive or cute position,” she added.
“It made my heart sink the moment I saw that video. I thought this was going to be the end for the slow loris.”
A FACTOR IN WILDLIFE TRADE
Viral videos of exotic pets may also be fuelling the trade in them.
Cassandra Koenen, who heads the World Animal Protection’s wildlife campaigns, noted that in a survey of first-time exotic pet buyers, 15 per cent said YouTube videos had inspired them to buy their pets.
Half of them did next to no research before buying these animals.
“Social media platforms are still struggling (with) … or ignoring the fact that these animals are continually being sold on their platforms,” said Koenen.
“It just makes it too easy. You see the video, search online for a place to buy it … and then it’s in your home.”
Nekaris said that once an exotic animal appears in a video with a person, there is a perception that the animal “isn’t as endangered”.
“The fact that you can hold it and it doesn’t necessarily bite you, or (in) the videos you’re watching, the people aren’t being bitten … suggests it’s a suitable pet,” she said.
Paul Lewis, who runs the Forgotten Kingdom Animal Shelter outside Seattle, has lost count of the number of exotic animals he has nursed back to health.
Most of the animals that have ended up in this shelter over the past two decades were rescued by wildlife authorities or abandoned by their owners.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, he has noticed more people streaming videos of their exotic pets, which he said encourages others to buy or adopt these animals.
And he is worried about more exotic pets, legal or illegal, turning up at the shelter once their owners return to a “normal life” after the pandemic.
“Those types of animals … require a lot of care, (their owners) aren’t going to be around to take care of them, and then they’re going to have a problem,” he said.