These past few months have seen something of a reckoning for some of the most famous faces on YouTube. Beauty guru James Charles faced multiple accusations that he was knowingly engaging in sexual conversations with underage fans, something he eventually admitted to. David Dobrik of Vlog Squad fame became embroiled in controversy after one of his former collaborators was accused of rape and Dobrik’s own inappropriate behavior fell under the spotlight. The infamous Jake Paul, a man who seemingly profits from shock, was accused of sexually assaulting a young woman, which he denied. Three of YouTube’s biggest celebrities — a trio of faces highly familiar to the site’s devoted audience — all accused of horrific deeds. For those paying attention, a lot of this felt dishearteningly unsurprising.
YouTube has long had a problem with acknowledging and dealing with the behavior of the celebrities it helped to create. PewDiePie’s popularity didn’t dim in the slightest despite his many controversies. Logan Paul faced minor punishment for showing a dead body in a video but he’s now bigger than ever. Many a right-wing bully uses the video platform as their for-profit pulpit, often in dangerous ways that single out vulnerable individuals. Questions remain over YouTube’s culpability and ultimate responsibility when it comes to those figures it has elevated to the level of worldwide fame. Not only that but they have celebrated them as examples of the incredible Cinderella story that only YouTube can provide for a new generation.
YouTube is but one of many major platforms eager to distance themselves from the responsibility of their position by claiming that their hands-off approach and frequent ignorance over what they host is a free speech issue. Even though sites like YouTube, Twitter, Substack, and so on have rules of conduct and claim to be tough on harassment, the evidence speaks to the contrary. Twitter is notoriously laissez-faire about abuse and slurs on its site, especially when it comes from high-profile figures like the former f**king President. Substack is currently under fire for offering lucrative advances to writers who use their shiny new newsletters to spread transphobia. And then there’s YouTube’s bigotry-for-profit problem. Whether it’s GamerGate, QAnon, or whatever conspiracy of the moment is gaining the most traction, YouTube has almost giddily allowed this violence to flourish. While YouTube finally started clamping down on Q-crap last year, it never fully banned it, and by that point in time, a lot of horrendous people had made a lot of money through ad revenue. And their algorithm made it practically inevitable for even the most stridently anti-conspiracy viewer to eventually stumble upon this danger. Just keep autoplay on long enough and you would soon find your way from knitting videos to claims that school shootings are false flags.
When it comes to the likes of Charles, Dobrik, Paul, and many more, we see YouTube’s conundrum. They need to keep eyeballs on their site at all times to justify their existence, even when they are the only game in town for reliable video content. On an annual basis, Google says YouTube generated $15 billion in 2019, although it remains questionable as to whether or not the site actually runs at a profit. Even with zero tangible competition and total domination of the market, YouTube has no guarantee of profit for Google. They need to keep the biggest captive audiences possible for the longest time, damn the expense or consequences.
Those YouTube stars, that new generation of celebrities who have helped to wholly redefine the concept of fame for the 21st century, have been heralded as the faces of the future by their own platform. They center those figures in marketing and wider off-site publicity as the best of the best. They’re YouTube’s pride and joy when things go well but totally not their responsibility when accusations of assault and misconduct emerge. Wildly inappropriate actions are sold as ‘pranks’ in multi-million viewed videos and promoted by YouTube’s algorithm as must-see content. The uneasy exploitation of kids in family vlogs is just adorable relatable fun until multiple parents seemingly actively abuse their children in videos that become too embarrassing for the platform to overlook.
YouTube has made a lot of people very rich and famous in a short amount of time, and with none of the protective foundations in place that come with more traditional routes of celebrity. We have a generation of teens (and a few even younger examples) with more money than sense made on a platform that has thrown them in front of a tidal wave with no warning or preparation. This is not to excuse the behavior of the likes of Paul, Charles, or Dobrik, but the obvious power dynamics at play are rooted in YouTube’s hands-off attitude towards those it elevates to near-deified status. For the likes of the Vlog Squad, Dobrik’s ensemble of collaborators and friends, we see how Dobrik frequently wielded his position of authority and wealth over those who wanted a sliver of his audience. If your 20-year-old friend-boss-collaborator — the lines are always blurred on YouTube — wants you to humiliate yourself for the channel with the promise that it’ll benefit your career, do you feel empowered to say no? Especially when YouTube’s algorithm is primed to f**k you over in a heartbeat?
David Dobrik is 24. The power he had before he was even old enough to drink in America — that ability for one guy to coerce, mistreat, and actively bully others as part of his business plan — is truly insidious. And YouTube helped to make that happen. They elevated Dobrik to the level of popularity where the Wall Street Journal was comparing him to Jimmy Fallon. They made it profitable for him to endlessly ‘prank’ people in increasingly nasty ways. That they saw no issue with this speaks volumes. As far as YouTube is concerned, the mess it made is someone else’s problem, whether it’s abusive vloggers, conspiracy theorists, or flat-out racism.
Dobrik’s channel was eventually demonetized by YouTube, but actions like this feel too little too late given how much wealth he’s accumulated over the years. Jake Paul is still pulling in big bucks from his channel. Charles was recently demonetized, but his follower count remains pretty unscathed. And that doesn’t even include all the right-wing creeps pulling in big bucks from YouTube. Like with any good teary apology video, the notion of true accountability seems unreachable.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.