Social Media

The Biggest Social Media Operation You’ve Never Heard of Is Run Out of Cyprus by Russians

By Lisa Kaplan
Wednesday, December 18, 2019, 2:00 PM

What the heck is TheSoul Publishing? I’m still honestly not sure.

Here’s what I do know: Measured in terms of views and subscribers, it had the third-largest reach of any group of entertainment channels on YouTube in November—outranked only by Disney and WarnerMedia. It is run by Russian nationals and based in and managed from Cyprus, with U.S. operations housed in a shared work space in New York. It funds itself with ad revenues from YouTube and Google worth tens of millions of dollars. And in 2018, it purchased a small suite of Facebook advertisements targeting U.S. citizens on political issues—and it made those purchases in rubles.

Asked detailed written questions about the company, a spokesman for TheSoul Publishing responded with a statement and provided background information, which is reflected throughout. The spokesman stated: “Simply because a company has roots, international offices, and/or diverse global employees outside of the U.S., one should not jump to conclusions or automatically make assumptions that there is a hidden agenda. To be clear, TheSoul Publishing creates fun, non-political oriented content that is enjoyed by an incredible amount of fans globally.”

Indeed, TheSoul Publishing does create nonpolitical (and apparently lucrative) craft videos, reaching worldwide audiences. But it also creates political content, including pro-Russian versions of histories that contain inaccurate information. The social media platforms, which I made aware of TheSoul’s activities, have not taken action against the company—apparently having concluded that its activities do not violate their policies.

I researched the company without special access to data and using only publicly available information from sources such as the front-end data on the social media platforms, public records and interviews. Here is what I learned.

TheSoul is a web publishing company that distributes its content across a range of YouTube channels. The more popular channels—like 5-Minute CraftsBright Side5-Minute Crafts Kids5-Minute Crafts Girly7-Second Riddles and 5-Minute Magic—post multiple times a day and, according to publicly available information found on YouTube, have uploaded more than 1,000 videos each since their creation. The company’s website boasts 140 YouTube channels and 70 Facebook pages. I have been able to identify 35 YouTube channels and 25 Facebook pages that identify connections with TheSoul Publishing. Asked about the discrepancy, a representative of the company confirms that these are all of the English-language sites but says the company also runs channels in several other languages, including Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, Korean and Japanese. The oldest of the YouTube channels I have seen was created in 2016; the oldest Facebook page dates from 2015.

TheSoul’s numbers are undeniably impressive. Its largest channels have millions of subscribers and billions of views, according to information publicly available on the YouTube channels themselves. As of Dec. 16, 2019, 5-Minute Crafts had more than 62.8 million subscribers, and a total of 16,648,886,677 views; Bright Side had more than 32.3 million subscribers and 6,286,157,368 views.

According to Tubular Labs, a company that provides insights into metrics for each brand creator, in November 2019, TheSoul Publishing had the third most views of any media and entertainment creator on YouTube and Facebook, behind only the Walt Disney Company and WarnerMedia. In October, it was fourth. And in November, 5-Minute Crafts was the second most viewed of any media and entertainment channel.

This is all especially impressive because I have been unable to identify any YouTube channels associated with TheSoul Publishing that were created before 2016. According to the information found on its various YouTube channels, 5-Minute Crafts began Nov. 15, 2016, while Bright Side began March 15, 2017. The majority of TheSoul Publishing’s channels were created in 2018 and 2019, according to an examination of 35 of its sites.

TheSoul isn’t only on YouTube. It has also built an enormous Facebook presence—which is impressive given that the pages I have examined were all developed after 2015 and thus have had only a few years to attract an audience. For example, Bright Side, whose Facebook presence claims to have begun in June 2004—Facebook’s transparency measures put the start date on July 2, 2015—has more than 44 million followers. By contrast, the New York Times’s Facebook page has a comparatively paltry 16 million followers. Lawfare’s meager Facebook page has just over 24,000 followers.

In my interactions with the social media platforms, I developed no information to suggest that TheSoul’s traffic was inauthentic.

As a spokesperson from the company put it, “Our impressive organic growth and positive viewer reception is very exciting. As we continue to produce entertaining videos, our fans can look forward to even more likable content that they’ve come to highly enjoy.”

If you’ve never heard of TheSoul, you’re not alone. The company has built its online empire in relative obscurity. Public coverage of the company in English has been sporadic. In September 2019, Time magazine raved over the company’s traffic and described the “bizarre” content posted by 5-Minute Crafts. Vox likewise posted an article in November 2018 characterizing the channel’s content as “cringey” and “peculiar.” Forbes has noted the lightning-fast rise of TheSoul Publishing and its remarkable traffic, contrasting the apparently anodyne videos with dire-sounding concerns over Russian election interference: “So just what are those Trump loving, Hillary hating Russians promoting ad nauseam on Facebook to fool Americans into voting the way Vladimir Putin wants?” the Forbes article asks, before showing a lengthy video compilation of TheSoul’s crafting suggestions.

TheSoul Publishing grew out of a company called AdMe, the company confirms, which began in 2004 in Kazan, Russia. AdMe was focused on digital advertising and content distribution. In 2016, its founders moved operations to Cyprus. In the summer of 2018, TheSoul opened a U.S.-based entity and a U.K. entity, which is currently managed from Cyprus. Earlier this year, the company incorporated another U.K. entity, the company confirms. The Cyprus headquarters owns and manages all of TheSoul Publishing’s operations worldwide, the company says, and any legal entity that has been set up elsewhere is simply created to support the overall business.

TheSoul Publishing primarily makes videos, many of which use the same actors and clips. A lot of the content provides “tips” that seem strange or even useless, like rubbing a candle on shoes before hiking to make the shoes fully waterproof. One video shows a variety of “water tricks to live up your day,” including how to make a density column by mixing together a range of different liquids and beverages with detergent:

Most of TheSoul’s videos are clickbait with instructions for do-it-yourself projects, and TheSoul’s channels range in success. Some are less active than others. Of the 35 channels I examined, nine have stopped posting in the past year, and a handful (5-Minute WorkoutsHealth Is Wealth, Health Digest, Dark Side and Zodiac Maniac) have not posted new content in the past 11 months. You’re Gorgeous, The Story Behind and Stickman have all stopped posting new content within the past six months. However, the most popular channels—Bright Side and 5-Minute Crafts—appear to be active and growing. From August 2019 to December 2019, according to examinations of the data in both periods, Bright Side gained nearly 3.5 million subscribers and 1 billion views, and 5-Minute Crafts gained more than 3 million subscribers and 1.5 billion views.

The vast majority of the company’s content is apolitical—and that is certainly the way the company portrays itself. A spokesperson for TheSoul Publishing commented that “[w]e are very proud of our highly popular videos enjoyed by millions around the world. From do-it-yourself craft to charming animation to riddle and puzzle videos, TheSoul Publishing showcases a portfolio of lighthearted content watched across major social platforms.”

But here’s the thing: TheSoul Publishing also posts history videos with a strong political tinge. Many of these videos are overtly pro-Russian. One video posted on Feb. 17, 2019, on the channel Smart Banana, which typically posts listicles and history videos, claims that Ukraine is part of Russia. (The video has since been removed.) The video opens:

Mr. Banana wants to know what you think about when you hear the word Russia. Do you think of a bear with a bottle of vodka and a balalaika in his paw, or maybe you think about President Putin and the Red Square in Moscow. Let’s have a look at the history of the biggest country in the world.

At one point, the video gives a heavily sanitized version of Josef Stalin’s time in power and, bizarrely, suggests that Alaska was given to the United States by Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev:

The second leader after Lenin’s death was Josef Stalin. He started to recover the country after the revolution. Josef reformed the country. He took the wealth from rich people and the property from the middle class and united all of these people with poor ones in the collective farm and the collective property. Russian Robin Hood—bang! Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June of 1941. It was the beginning of the second World War. Russia was not ready for any wars at the moment, so Hitler hoped to conquer Russia in four months. As naive as Napoleon. The USSR joined the allies. The Soviet Union militaries came to Berlin and beat it. The facism of Hitler was defeated on the second of May 1945 during four years of war, the Soviet Union officially lost twenty-seven million people. Many cities were destroyed. Recovery from the war was very difficult for both people and the country. By 1960, the Soviet Union succeeded, in 1957 the rent of Alaska was over and the country’s leader at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, gifted Alaska to the USA. That’s when Alaska became the 49th state of the US.

(The United States in fact purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. The territory was admitted to the U.S. as a state in 1959.) Smart Banana has 1.75 million subscribers, and the video in question has been viewed more than 283,000 times, according to YouTube data.

The video ends by displaying a future vision of Russian expansion that includes most of Europe (notably not Turkey), the Middle East and Asia:

Following initial publication of this article and subsequently publicity Friday on The Rachel Maddow Show, TheSoul Publishing removed this video, along with a number of others. A spokesman for the company issued the following statement: “The attention garnered this week around a handful of history focused videos made us pause and take a closer look at this content. We acknowledge that there were factual mistakes and we take pride in getting information correct for our audiences. We have taken down the videos in question and are currently reviewing our internal fact-checking process.”

In another video on Smart Banana, which has more than 1 million views, the titular banana speculates on “12 Countries That May Not Survive the Next 20 Years”—including the United States, which the video argues may collapse because of political infighting and diverse political viewpoints. (This video has also since been removed; relevant screenshots which were captured on September 8, 2019 are presented below.)

Another TheSoul Publishing channel, Easy Peasy, posts political histories alongside animated listicle videos and informative takes on why girls like “bad boys.” One video promises to tell the story of how the USA came to be the country of Hollywood, McDonald’s and Donald Trump. The rest of the video tells the history of the U.S. as the stories of Christopher Columbus, slavery, the Trail of Tears, World Wars I and II, 9/11 and the war on terror. (The video has since been removed; relevant screenshots are captured below.) :

The discussion of 9/11 includes the assertion that President Obama “officially ended the combat mission” in the war on terror and “promised to withdraw all American troops by 2016”—showing a man with his fingers crossed behind his back.

So where is all this content coming from? According to publicly available information from the YouTube channels themselves—information provided to YouTube by the people who set up and operate the channels at TheSoul Publishing—as of August 2019, 21 of the 35 channels connected to TheSoul Publishing claim to be based in the U.S. Ten of the channels had no country listed. Zodiac Maniac was registered in the U.K, though TheSoul Publishing emphasizes that all of its operations are run out of Cyprus.

Most of the views for this channel come from Europe. Now I’ve Seen Everything was the only channel registered in the Russian Federation. That channel has more than 400 million views, which, according to the analytics tool Nox Influencer, come from a range of countries, including Russia and Eastern European and Central Asian countries—despite being an English-language channel.

Asked about TheSoul’s operations on its platform, a spokesperson for YouTube said, “All content on YouTube is subject to our Community Guidelines, which we enforce consistently regardless of the channel. We have additional policies for any videos that are showing ads, including against content that misstates information about the creator, such as where they’re located. We have found no evidence of abuse on any of the channels mentioned here. If we find violations of our policies, we take appropriate action, including striking videos, removing ads or terminating accounts.”

TheSoul Publishing’s Facebook pages follow patterns similar to those of the YouTube channels. Certain channels, such as 5-Minute Crafts and 5-Minute Crafts Kids, post similar or the same videos at different intervals. They act in a coordinated manner, either posting original videos within Facebook or driving content to brightside.me, a webpage registered in Germany on GoDaddy, which itself is made up of clickbait articles.

Data acquired using Facebook’s transparency measures identifies none of the account administrators for these pages as based in the United States. Instead, by and large, across all pages, most administrators are listed as residing in Cyprus or Russia, with some located in a smattering of other countries—including former Soviet bloc countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Romania and Ukraine, as well as incongruous locales such as El Salvador.

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There’s a mystery here, though. What, exactly, is TheSoul doing on Facebook?

As relates to its YouTube presence, the answer is simple: making money. YouTube pays content creators to make videos. Every time an advertiser creates a campaign and sets a budget against its advertisement, YouTube’s algorithms will place advertisements on content to help advertisers reach their audience. Some of the funds are kept by YouTube, and some are sent to the content creator. Open-source estimates on TheSoul Publishing’s revenue from Nox Influencer suggest that the business is lucrative: According to Nox Influencer, Bright Side alone is earning between $314,010 and 971,950 monthly, and 5-Minute Crafts is earning between $576,640 and $1,780,000 monthly through YouTube partner earning estimates. As a privately held company, TheSoul Publishing doesn’t have to disclose its earnings. But all the Cypriot-managed company has to do to earn money from YouTube is meet viewing thresholds and have an AdSense account. AdSense, a Google product, just requires that a company have a bank account, an email address and a phone number. To monetize to this magnitude of revenue, YouTube may have also collected tax information, if TheSoul Publishing organization is conducting what it defines as “U.S. activities.” It’s also possible that YouTube verified a physical address by sending a pin mailer.

By contrast, Facebook pages could be a tool to increase profit if a company actively markets merchandise or sales, which TheSoul Publishing does not appear to do. Instead, TheSoul Publishing tells me it has been taking advantage of Facebook’s monetization tools, which Facebook made available to content creators in August of 2018, just over three years after TheSoul created its first Facebook page in July of 2015. While TheSoul Publishing did not answer specific questions about how many videos it monetizes, a spokesman for the company did issue the following statement about its monetization strategy in response to the publication of this article: “Similar to other digital content creators and publishers in our industry, TheSoul Publishing has different ways to monetize our presence on Facebook. We use in-stream advertising in qualifying videos. Facebook programmatically places advertisements in qualifying content to help advertisers reach their audience, and then shares some of the funds with the content creator.”

The pages coordinate posting, so one post will often appear on a number of different pages. To a digital advertiser, this makes perfect sense as a way to increase relevance and visibility. TheSoul Publishing then sends viewers to what it describes as “fun and entertaining articles hosted on our own website and monetize via advertising provided by ad networks.” Below are examples of coordinated behavior on Facebook. Without disclosing their affiliation with one another, the pages appear to be posting in a coordinated manner: the same articles, which drive traffic to brightside.me, with the same copy. 

Facebook forbids what it describes as “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” as its head of cybersecurity describes in this video. While TheSoul’s Publishing’s behavior is clearly coordinated, it is unclear that any of its behavior is inauthentic based on information I have reviewed.

One thing that TheSoul is definitely doing on Facebook, however, is buying ads—and, at least sometimes, it’s doing so in rubles on issues of national importance, targeting audiences in the United States. The page Bright Side has 44 million followers and currently lists no account administrators located in the United States, but as of Aug. 8, 2019, it had them in Cyprus, Russia, the United Kingdom, El Salvador, India, Ukraine and in locations “Not Available.” It used Facebook to post six political advertisements paid for in the Russian currency.

TheSoul may have purchased nonpolitical ads as well, but Facebook’s transparency measures make information public only on political ad buys, and Facebook does not provide information outside of what’s available in the political content ad library.

All six of the publicly available political content ads were purchased during the summer of 2018, when Facebook rolled out additional security measures requiring that advertisers promoting political content undergo identity verification by the company—a process that involves the purchaser submitting photo ID, a home mailing address at which to receive a code to be entered by the user, and a Social Security number. Enforcement of this measure began on May 24, 2018. Facebook has since implemented additional transparency measures that require advertisers to be able to provide an employer identification number, a website, an email address that matches the company’s domain and some other form of authentication.

TheSoul Publishing’s political advertisements, which Facebook defines as being related to a candidate or an issue of national importance, have targeted those in the United States. The data show that the company specifically targeted individuals over the age of 18.

The ad buy was very small. TheSoul Publishing spent around $5.00 across six political ads. Each advertisement had a small reach—fewer than 1,000 “impressions,” Facebook’s metric for evaluating content distribution, attributed to the paid advertising. (This figure does not include impressions from Facebook users who would be shown the post organically based on Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms or individual sharing.)

By comparison, BuzzFeed, which also posts light, fun articles (in addition to having highly reputable journalists who are regularly reporting the news and undergo editorial review) has an international team and spent $40,361 on more than 20 times the amount of political advertising TheSoul Publishing has posted.

So the point here is not that the ad buy is significant in and of itself. The point, rather, is that the company has developed a massive social media following and has a history of at least experimenting with distributing both pro-Russian and paid political content to that following.

TheSoul’s political ads included the one below. The advertisement pushes viewers to an article about how “wonderful [it is] that Donald Trump earns less in a year than you do in a month.” The advertisement reached men, women, and people of unknown genders over the ages of 18, and began running on May 15, 2018. TheSoul Publishing spent less than a dollar on this advertisement, raising the question: why bother advertising at all?

There was also an accompanying YouTube video that describes the article in the advertisement above, which as of Dec. 16, 2019, had 2,935,194 views. (The video has since been removed.):

 

The next two ads contain an image of President Trump yelling on the cover of Der Tasspiegel, a German newspaper, juxtaposed with a second incongruous image that varies between ads. A common advertising test is called A/B testing, where an advertiser tests two advertisements for conversion by running them against each other to see which one performs better.

The below three advertisements apparently focused on raising awareness about environmental issues and human trafficking. Facebook has a feature for testing messaging on different audiences, as a way to understand which audiences your advertisement resonates with the most.

Facebook gives rough statistics about who viewed each advertisement, as shown above. But while Facebook advertisers are able to target individuals with some level of granularity based on their preferences, jobs, family situations and other information, the data provided by the platform doesn’t show specifically who each advertisement targeted and why.

TheSoul Publishing also has an app available for download—if you dare.

 

Sophie Lawton contributed to this report.

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