Wrong On Everything: How Putin Made A Fool of a Popular Ukraine Travel Vlogger
Last November, the U.S. intelligence community began privately warning European allies that the Russian Army was preparing for an invasion of Ukraine. The warnings were highly detailed, spelling out almost every aspect of Russia’s plan across air, land, sea, and cyberspace.
By February, the Biden Administration launched an unprecedented program to declassify and publicly share intelligence with the media in an effort to debunk Vladimir Putin’s many pretexts for war as well as prove to the world that there were in fact more than 150,000 troops, artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, rocket systems, and fighter aircraft surrounding Ukraine on three sides and poised to attack.
Almost everything released by the U.S. and its allies, and reported by the mainstream media on an hourly basis, came to pass. Yet, in video after video one of the best-known Ukraine travel vloggers on the ground in Ukraine told hundreds of thousands of his YouTube subscribers that the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine was an invention of American propaganda and the mainstream media.
How and why did he get it so wrong?
The Limits of The YouTube Vlogger
The American expat named Johnny Jen also goes by the YouTube channel name of Johnny FD. Until a few days ago, Johnny FD lived in Kyiv, where he created travel videos for 225,000 subscribers. To date, he’s racked up more than 23 million video views.
I first became aware of Johnny FD about a year ago when he began to appear in videos by Benjamin Rich, better known by his YouTube channel name Bald and Bankrupt. Nobody has done more to show the world the beautiful richness of Ukraine and many other former Soviet states than Rich, an English travel vlogger with 3.36 million subscribers (the author is one of them) and 472 million video views.
While Rich, who is extremely knowledgeable of the history of the former Soviet Union, offers a look at the people, traditions, and languages of the regions he visits, Johnny FD is another story completely.
Johnny FD’s commentary, particularly when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is too often littered with anti-American rants that border on conspiracy theories. His videos in the weeks and days leading up to the invasion were not only wrong on almost every issue, but they highlighted how much damage the anti-truth movement has done to trust and faith in the institution of journalism.
Johnny FD’s reach and influence on YouTube are completely out of proportion to his education and storytelling skills. He is a walking case study in why YouTube Vloggers are no substitute for real journalism when it comes to covering world events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
70 Days Until The War
Johnny FD began opining on the potential for a Russian invasion of Ukraine as far back as December 16. In a video he titled Ukraine Escape Plan, Johnny railed against what he called “propaganda.” Here are a few of his statements, all of which betray a stunning ignorance of history and show the extent to which dangerous political ideologues have damaged the notions of truth and fact.
- “Always ask yourself, why does America care if Russia and Ukraine are having conflict? What does this have to do with the U.S.? Why is the U.S. so interested? It’s literally about money.”
- “I guarantee you the conversations in the U.S. especially but also in western Europe are a million times higher than the concern I got locally here in actual Ukraine. The chances of conflict coming to the capital city of Kyiv is so low I’m really not worried about it. Are they going to come through Belarus? The chances are almost zero.”
“I think this is why the U.S. propaganda machine didn’t work this time, because there are people like me that have YouTube channels.”— YouTube Vlogger, Johhnny FD
55 Days Until The War
On January 31, Johnny FD made one of the biggest mistakes of his Vlogging career by appearing on RT, the Russian state-controlled television network. It was truly a cringe-worthy performance in which the RT host could barely control her excitement for how easy it was to get this unwitting American to support Russian propaganda downplaying the likelihood of an invasion of Ukraine and bash America in front of millions of viewers.
Johnny FD: “Life is completely normal. There’s nothing happening on the ground here that would make you feel in any kind of danger.”
RT Host: “Well, that’s good to hear. Do Ukrainians really hate Russia or is this blown out of proportion by the media?”
Johnny FD: “The U.S., they always want someone as the enemy.”
And then something strange happens as the RT host wraps up the interview.
RT Host: “I’m glad that somebody like you…”
Then there is dead air for 3 seconds as she seems to be describing Johnny.
“…who’s not involved in politics can kind of break it down for us.”
If anybody can read lips, it would be interesting to know what the RT host said about Johnny FD that he felt the need to silence.
The reaction from his viewer base was swift and strong, with more than 2,600 comments, mostly negative. In his rambling explanation of why he didn’t realize what he was doing, all Johnny FD could muster for his defense was a statement about how he doesn’t watch any news at all. For a guy who doesn’t watch the news, he sure has a lot of opinions about its accuracy (or inaccuracy) and the hidden agendas of different news agencies.
Johnny was forced to issue an apology. But, as usual, the vlogger with so many deep-seated opinions about mainstream media organizations tries to explain his actions by claiming ignorance of the news.
“First I want to apologize for offending anyone, I didn’t realize how much they were hated. I don’t watch any news channels, as honestly, they are ALL biased and propaganda,” Johnny FD wrote. “BBC, CNN, and FOX News are all as biased as they can be. It’s all propaganda. Either way, at the end of the day, if Russian news wants to push the narrative that Putin doesn’t actually want to invade Ukraine, and wants the potential war to end, then I’m all for it.”
8 Days Until The War
By Feb. 16, as the warnings of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine reached a fevered pitch, Johnny FD hosted a live stream on the streets of Kyiv titled Live from Ukraine: Russian Invasion Day. His thesis that Russia would never invade Ukraine was based on the Hollywood movie “Wag the Dog,” a political satire in which a U.S. president gets caught in a sex scandal and his advisors invent a war in Albania to distract the media from domestic issues.
“The U.S. always wants some evil empire,” Johnny FD said. “So, we chose Russia. Now, this is how our military complex is going to make money, this is how we’re going to get the attention away from the U.S. economy.”
According to this twisted theory from a guy who doesn’t watch the news, this would lead to Joe Biden getting reelected. Biden’s goal, he said, was to make it appear that Russia wavered at the last minute in the face of American greatness.
“Russia had even said they don’t want war. I think this is the first time ever that the U.S. propaganda machine was highlighted,” Johnny FD said as he strolled through the Maidan, the site of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution to overthrow the Russian stooge Viktor Yanukovych. “I think this is why the U.S. propaganda machine didn’t work this time, because there are people like me that have YouTube channels.”
1 Day Until The War
On Feb. 23, we find Bald and Bankrupt in Poland traveling toward the Ukrainian-Russian border.
“Just up the road stands the border with Ukraine,” said Bald as he started his journey. “A nation that, if Joe Biden and the British press are to be believed, stands on the cusp of a devastating invasion by none other than Vladimir Putin.”
As Bald arrives in Lviv, we get a good survey of local attitudes toward the potential for war and the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people. But even Bald couldn’t avoid betraying his inner doubts of the media reporting that had been warning him for months of what was to come.
“The people on the streets of Lviv seem quite relaxed about the situation,” Bald said. “However, listening to USA morning news you would think that the invasion is a hundred percent certainly going to happen. That’s the story they’re running with anyway.”
February 24 was “the day nobody expected,” according to the video Johnny FD posted on invasion day. As he panned across the streets of downtown Kyiv, Johnny FD acknowledged for the first time the reality of what was happening and yet still managed to betray his ignorance of the true nature of the Russian regime.
“Yes, Russia has attacked,” Johnny said. “And Russia has said they’re not going to attack civilians, they’re not going to attack buildings. They’re only going to attack the military and infrastructure. And there’s no reason not to believe that.”
As of this writing, the United Nations estimates that 227 civilians have been killed by the Russian bombing and 525 injured. The actual number is likely to be much higher.
War – Day 1
The bombs continue to fall around Kyiv and Johnny FD is filming from the Maidan in central Kyiv. Behind him in the distance stands Bald and Bankrupt in a bright blue jacket talking to an international news crew. Hundreds of Ukrainian civilians in Kharkiv have taken shelter in subway stations to escape Russian bombs. In city after city, videos and news broadcasts show bombed-out windows in civilian homes, wounded Ukrainians outside hospitals, and abandoned baby strollers.
Photographers from The Washington Post document destroyed apartment buildings in Kyiv and scores of displaced citizens.
Johnny FD addressed his youTube audience in shock.
“Bald is here with me. We’re the only two crazy guys, like civilians. Most people are either military or journalists,” he said. “I made this live because I wanted to show you what’s actually happening. If you just stay home and watch the news you get one side of the story.”
Between the time Johnn FD recorded this video and the time of this writing (March 3), the number of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country doubled to more than 1 million.
War – Day 3
In a video posted on Feb. 27 (likely filmed on Feb. 24), Stay and Shelter or Leave Ukraine, Johnny FD asks a foreign TV correspondent in the center of Kyiv if he thought the invasion would actually happen. The correspondent’s answer was an education for Johnny FD. If Putin wants to accomplish his goals, the correspondent said, he has to take control of Kyiv.
All Johnny FD could do was slink away and sigh. “There, you guys heard it from the war journalist, “ he said.
By the end of the video, Johnny FD is following Bald and Bankrupt through the city. As he passes a Louis Vuitton store and other high-end shops, Johnny FD can’t stop himself from making yet another irrelevant comparison between the people of Kyiv and Americans.
“Let’s just say if this were America there would be looting there,” Johnny said with a laugh.
Running & Judging
By Feb. 25, both Johnny FD and Bald have decided the Russians are actually coming and it’s time to leave Ukraine. They work their way onto an evacuation train, taking advantage of the heroes who worked the train queue and allowed as many people as possible to board the train.
In true Johnny FD form, once he arrives at the border with Hungary he focuses his ire on people he describes as “Romas” and accuses them of “taking advantage” of the war to enter the European Union. It is another cringe-worthy, classless segment.
Unfortunately, this was not the first time Johnny FD took aim at those he viewed as different. In his video Stay and Shelter or Leave Ukraine, Johnny spends about 10 minutes lurking around a supermarket praising how Ukrainians were not panic-buying groceries and necessities. Of course, the irrelevant comparisons of how Americans would react to such a crisis (in Johnny FD’s mind, anyway) were constant.
Johnny FD then took creepiness to a new level, stalking and harassing three men who were “foreign guys” for buying too much. He had no idea what their situation was, if they were actually panic buying, or buying for extended families who were about to make the treacherous journey out of the country.
Johnny FD then takes his audience back to his apartment in Kyiv and shows the world a fully-stocked refrigerator. “I have a lot of food in my fridge so don’t worry. My freezer is completely full as well and I have some dry goods,” Johnny FD said just minutes after passing judgment on strangers in the supermarket.
I’m a Reporter From England
While it is clear that YouTube vloggers like Johnny FD should never be relied upon for unbiased, insightful analysis of world events or a replacement for professional journalism, there is still hope that travel vloggers can add important views from the people they meet.
When we left Bald and Bankrupt on his journey to the Ukraine-Russia border, we left him walking through the mud of a small, run-down village overlooking a tree-lined area that we now know concealed a Russian military staging area. An old man comes out to greet Bald, and Bald introduces himself as a “correspondent from England.” The man tells him he is not scared, has no intentions of abandoning his home, and that he is a patriot.
As Bald walks away from the dilapidated structures of the village, he looks around in bewilderment.“My God, we’re lucky we live in, well if you live in a western country like I do,” he said. “Just think about the people here in this village. They’ve got to contend with the lack of prospects, lack of jobs, lack of wages, lack of healthcare, lack of future. And on top of that,” he said, pointing across the field toward the Russian border, “just there across that barbed wire they’ve got the threat of a possible invasion. Be grateful for what you’ve got.”