Alfie Deyes is one of YouTube’s most prominent British celebrities. The 25 year old founder of PointlessBlog has over 5.1 million subscribers to his main channel and 3.9 million for his secondary channel. Deyes is best known for his relationship with fellow British YouTuber Zoella, but has also published books, appeared on charity singles and television shows, and, along with his partner, runs A to Z Creatives, a ‘social media savvy, creative outlet who love nothing more than producing great quality content to assist in taking creators, brands and local businesses from A to Z.’ In the grand scheme of YouTubers who have managed to leverage their channel into a variety of major business opportunities, Deyes certainly stands as one of the most prominent examples of vlogger success.
His channels are also losing subscribers. At his peak, in April of 2017, Deyes had 5.55 million subscribers, according to SocialBlade. Over the past week, he’s been dropping on average 500 or so followers a day. YouTube is a fickle industry, as many areas of instant celebrity are, and maintaining one’s popularity on the site over many years can be a struggle, especially as your target demographic ages out of being obsessed with you. It’s clearly a problem Deyes has thought about, and in February of this year, he ditched the username PointlessBlog. When talking about his future as a YouTuber on Twitter, he said, ‘It’s becoming embarrassing to be a ‘YouTuber’. 2019 is going to be a big year for creators on the site!’ That particular message was quote tweeting another YouTuber, Jay Swigler, who said, ‘What’s gonna happen in 2019 is; I’m making shit that I want to make, ME, not what YouTube or what you guys want us to make. Your own happiness comes first and anyone who doesn’t support that can suck a fat fuckin rodney. F-ck revenue, f-ck views. The real ones will stick around.’ An admirable message, for sure, and one that is understandable for a 25 year old making their living on a site where it’s more crucial than ever to evolve.
So why has Deyes decided the best way to evolve as a YouTuber and creator is to promote flat earthers?
In a video from December 2018, Deyes did a 57-minute video wherein he talked to a flat earther. This was followed up by a 53-minute video with the same conspiracy theorist with the more click-grabbing title, ‘Is The Earth Flat??? (Ft A Flat-Earther).’ Combined, the two videos have a view count of around 435,000. These videos did far less business than earlier ones featuring Deyes’s family, his girlfriend, and other YouTuber with whom he made his name. There’s nothing else like this on his channel, which is mostly the same kind of random antics he’s been making for years. If this was intended to launch a new direction for the channel, it seems to have been aborted before it took off. Still, his choice to do such videos - which are exhausting and aggravating and only highlight how utterly out of his depth as an interviewer Deyes is - is worth noting because he’s hardly the only prominent person doing so on the site.
Logan Paul has now joined the ranks of big name YouTubers latching onto the flat earther conspiracies for attention (because filming dead bodies was just getting boring, I suppose). Paul’s agonizingly long 50-minute ‘movie’ is exactly what you would expect from the intellectual titan who went to Aoikagahara and did that. The video with 3.4 million views, was so lambasted that even goddamn PewDiePie said he was an idiot for it. Imagine the moral high-ground you had to give way for that to happen.
A recent study blamed the startling rise in flat earthers on YouTube. Interviews with thirty attendees at a flat earther conference, according to the Guardian, revealed that ‘all but one said they had not considered the Earth to be flat two years ago but changed their minds after watching videos promoting conspiracy theories on YouTube.’ The interviews also noted how many of these flat earth videos came up because most of the attendees ‘had been watching videos about other conspiracies, with alternative takes on 9/11, the Sandy Hook school shooting and whether Nasa really went to the moon.’ Netflix recently added a documentary, Behind the Curve, dedicated to the growing community of theorists which proved popular with viewers, although the film is decidedly not on the side of the flat earthers. It’s now the meme du jour.
Just spent the weekend watching the @netflix doc on Flat Earthers. I'm now convinced I'm flat.— Universal Orlando Resort (@UniversalORL) March 25, 2019
Flat earth theories have been around for thousands of years, but the modern iteration of these conspiracies originated in the 1800s when English writer Samuel Rowbotham published a pamphlet called Zetetic Astronomy. He claimed the Earth was a flat disc and that the Sun and Moon were 3000 miles above Earth. This theory was rooted mostly in Biblical ideas and pseudoscience which was popular at the time. In 1956, Samuel Shenton created the International Flat Earth Research Society, wherein he repeatedly claimed that pioneering satellite images showing the Earth was spherical were merely the result of camera trickery. His successor Charles K. Johnson continued this conspiracy and blamed scientists for perpetuating anti-faith hoaxes in an attempt to replace religion altogether.
Flat-earth communities dwindled heavily before experiencing an internet era boom thanks to sites like YouTube. The site’s algorithm, which has been criticized for many years for its tendency to recommend conspiracy videos, is a convenient rabbit hole for users who just wanted to watch cooking videos or movie trailers. YouTube were widely criticized last year when it was revealed their algorithm was promoting conspiracy theories about the mass shooting in Las Vegas, claiming it was a ‘false flag’ operation. We have written before on the site about the darkness of bastardized children’s cartoons that feature Peppa Pig drinking bleach, found in no time at all by simply letting the autoplay function do its job. Guillaume Chaslot, a computer engineer who talked to the Guardian about dissecting the YouTube algorithm, said, ‘YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online. The recommendation algorithm is not optimizing for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy.’
Flat earth content does very well on YouTube because the algorithm works at its best when there is a steady stream of videos that suck in unsuspecting viewers. The site’s target audience is very young and of a generation that now watches YouTube with the fervour we used to save for cinema and television. YouTube already has a notoriously hands off attitude towards dealing with extremist content, but when the algorithm is so dependent on flat earthers, right-wing conspiracies, hyper-sexist screeds and nightmare fuel cartoons, you can’t help but wonder if they just don’t care.
The site faced impossible to ignore pressure last month when one video went viral detailing how a ‘soft-core pedophilia ring’ had taken root in YouTube via inappropriate comments and time-stamps directing fellow users towards the exploitation of children. The site had already been forced to action in January when they said they would ‘begin reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways — like videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.’ That’s all well and good but how does that work when some of the biggest celebrities on the site are now latching onto conspiracies as a way to game the algorithm for maximum views? The biggest YouTuber making his name on conspiracies is Shane Dawson. With over 21 million subscribers to his name, his videos on popular conspiracy theories regularly get tens of millions of views. It’s working for him so why wouldn’t it work for fellow vloggers?
Flat earthers prey on morbid curiosity, a growing anti-intellectual public discourse, and the toxicity of false equivalence that has forced all political debates to pretend that both sides are owed the same level of visibility and support. Plenty of YouTubers will indulge conspiracies as cheap content under the misguided belief that everyone tuning in will get the joke, but the algorithm has other ideas, and that’s created a very deep rabbit hole that’s become increasingly impossible to get out of unscathed.
Header Image Source: YouTube