Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson is in the news yet again, this time for wading into the realm of international politics. It’s the latest reminder that, though many American internet creators may desperately want to avoid divisive “third rail” discussions, this can sometimes prove difficult to execute on the modern, discourse-intensive internet.
Though the specifics of this latest controversy are fresh, and relate to one of his latest videos, it’s just the most recent in an ongoing stream of negative press for the YouTube breakout star. Being the #1 English-language creator on a platform like YouTube brings with it a lot of benefits, but also makes you the world’s #1 most visible target for withering criticism.
Though MrBeast’s billions didn’t come from exploiting factory workers overseas or laying off tens of thousands of staffers with families, like so many of his fellow billionaires, his massive visibility and high profile still means that barely a week goes by without Donaldson making headlines. Just in the last month or so, he has been involved in a very public dispute against the company that operated his “MrBeast Burger” cloud kitchens, he’s been hit with a copyright claim after allegedly using animation for which he lacked the rights, and we learned that scammers are using MrBeast’s likeness and reputation to bilk his fans.
Beast’s latest video introduces his own take on the Olympic Games, inviting competitors from—and I quote “every country on Earth”—to square off at various challenges for a shot at a $250,000 grand prize. As is tradition for MrBeast content, the competition itself is elaborately mounted, involving huge customized obstacle courses, individuals from over 130 countries, and even a bespoke, oversized gold medal.
Savvy readers may already have detected the issue, particularly from my telling use of quotes. Identifying MOST countries in an objective manner is pretty straightforward. But, of course, there are always some ongoing international diplomatic disputes and conflicts that make drawing exact, precise borders around EVERY nation on Earth something of a minefield. Literally. In some cases, you are drawing borders over actual minefields.
MrBeast’s video is non-political, of course, and not designed to confront any of these specific conflicts head-on. Nonetheless, he’s still very cavalier about throwing around terminology like “every country on Earth” and “we’re gonna see which country’s the best.” Intentional or not, that’s making an objective claim. These countries are real countries, the video inherently implies, and therefore if we have not identified them by name, they are not real countries.
Readers with degrees in political science, history, or international relations are probably working ahead here, but MrBeast’s various map-related decisions triggered some swift responses on social media.
For example, his video recognizes the existence of a country called Palestine, but limits its borders to just the West Bank. A participant from Hong Kong is included in the competition, but not Taiwan or Tibet, which apparently MrBeast considers to still be part of China. (These disputed territorial claims have been at the center of ongoing diplomatic disputes between China, its neighbors and Western powers, dating back to at least the 1970s.) MrBeast also awards Crimea to Russia following its invasion and annexation, a move that was condemned by the United Nations.
That’s all despite U.S. and U.K. territories including American Samoa, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico getting lumped in as independent states. Additionally, MrBeast’s borders between Western Sahara, Morocco, and the Sahrawi Republic don’t line up with any of those countries’ official maps.
There are also some straight-up errors as well. Greenland and the islands to its East, Svalbard, are Danish territories, but for some reason, MrBeast’s map seemingly awards them to Canada. As well, the nation of Georgia is identified with the official flag for the U.S. state of Georgia, in one of those very common errors you’d sort of hope his post-production team would have double checked.
Where In The World Are MrBeast’s Competitors?
Goofs and accidental flubs aside, we’re talking about real disputes between real countries here, which means the stakes couldn’t be higher. It might be amusing for us to note that MrBeast videos even take a stance on something like the borders of Western Sahara, but for people who live there, these are literal life and death issues. On TwitterX, Ukrainian influencer Igor Lachenkov called on MrBeast to update his map of Crimea, lest his fans assume that he supports “terrorism and war.” This is not really a laughing matter.
Many American creators and influencers purposefully avoid discussing politics in their content, in an effort to remain upbeat and accessible, and avoid potentially alienating segments of their fanbase. But the MrBeast controversy is the latest reminder that, regardless of the creator’s best and purest intentions, most content can’t ever truly be completely free of politics. As with any other art form, a video reflects its creator’s worldview, including their personal identity, internal biases, socio-economic status, and so on.
Even if he wasn’t explicitly including a map of the world and listing off various countries, MrBeast videos reflect the world as Jimmy Donaldson sees it, so there’s always some kind of political angle, if you go in looking for one. This particular situation just called for additional care, attention, and research, and MrBeast and his team clearly did not put in.
No Beast is an Island
Similarly, the infamous fashion influencers taking a tour of China’s Shein factory weren’t looking to make a bold personal statement about offshore factories and sweatshop labor. They wanted to talk about clothes. But their TikToks nonetheless existed within a wider context, which they ignored at their own peril.
In 2021, while promoting his appearance in the ninth “Fast & Furious” film, actor and wrestler John Cena made the offhand comment that “Taiwan is the first country to watch Fast and Furious 9.” This caused a furor in China, where Cena still has millions of fans, and which still claims the island as part of its territory. This led the international superstar to release an apology video message on the Chinese social network Weibo, speaking directly to his Chinese fans in Mandarin.
The message didn’t directly mention Taiwan or any other specifics. Cena simply says he loves and respects the Chinese people, and he’s “very very sorry for [his] mistake.”
The video kicked off an entire range of debates around the nature of international celebrity, increasingly blurring lines between being an individual and a brand, and the nature of sincerity and authenticity on social media. Is it fair to expect American celebrities to speak accurately about every country’s international borders? Does it feel organic and “real” for John Cena to apologize to Chinese fans for recognizing the existence of Taiwan, or is this pandering? Should more celebrities be trying to learn Mandarin?
It’s two years later, but the MrBeast situation shows that none of these questions have been satisfactorily answered. What is clear is that, for any creator anywhere near MrBeast’s level of visibility and prominence, due diligence is extremely important, as is having a real, thoughtful perspective on the subjects with which you’re engaging. Even a video with a premise as simple as “I’m going to host my own Olympics” is not being created in a vacuum, and “I’m an American, and I’m not political” no longer cuts it in 2023.