CONTENT WARNING: This article contains descriptions of grooming, sexual assault and exploitation.
There are two types of people in this world: those who follow YouTube drama, and those who don’t. And for those of you who don’t, this is fair. Especially considering that lately, most of that ‘drama’ is better characterised as: “Which millionaire YouTuber exploited an underage fan this time?”
James Charles and David Dobrik
Take James Charles, for example. Last month, the 21-year-old makeup YouTuber was accused of grooming by a 16-year-old fan. The fan, known online as Isaiyah, claimed that the two exchanged sexually explicit texts and photos. Isayiah apparently got uncomfortable and made it clear to Charles that he was 16, but reported that the influencer wasn’t worried about this. Later, James reportedly liked a tweet smearing his alleged grooming victim.
Meanwhile, the wildly successful YouTuber David Dobrik may also be experiencing his fall from grace. A couple of weeks ago, an Insider report alleged that a member of Dobrik’s ‘Vlog Squad’, Dominykas Zeglaitis (aka Durte Dom) sexually assaulted a woman at the squad’s house in 2018. While the woman was apparently not old enough to legally consume alcohol at the time, the squad reportedly bought alcohol for her and her friends. Dobrik supposedly filmed the woman as she went into Zeglaitis’ bedroom where she says she was assaulted. By all accounts, it seems that Dobrik trafficked a woman’s traumatic experience on YouTube for clicks. While he later took the video down, it had already amassed five million views.
The two alarming reports are only the most recent plot points in what seems to be an entrenched pattern of male YouTubers exploiting their fans, many of whom are young and vulnerable. The most well-known example of this may be disgraced YouTube star Austin Jones asking his devastatingly young teenage fans (aged 14 or 15) to send him nudes. According to Buzzfeed News, he asked his victims to do so to “prove” they were his “biggest fans''. Jones pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2019.
YouTubers As Stars Of The People
When YouTube first started gaining traction as a form of ‘new media’ back in 2008, there was a lot to be excited about. It offered creators overlooked by industry gatekeepers unfettered access to audiences, offering a more democratic means of both production and distribution. It made way, for example, for the rise of Issa Rae via the YouTube series Awkward Black Girl, now late night host Lilly Singh or closer to home, musician Troye Sivan. This bottom-up medium, then, allowed for a participatory culture that brought fans closer to the creators they admired. Unlike Hollywood’s traditional inaccessibility, YouTubers usually project down-to-earth, charismatic personas that actively engage with their fans.
But could bringing wealthy, YouTubers closer to the fans, many of whom are children, go some way in explaining why YouTube is currently a hotbed of exploitation? While YouTubers and influencers may claim to be on an equal footing to their fans, it’s clear that they’re not. As we’ve said, YouTuber fans are usually a good chunk younger than the YouTubers themselves. The 24-year-old David Dobrik, for example, has a slew of teenage fans. The power discrepancy then, between Dobrik and these fans is huge – especially when the emotional vulnerability that comes with being a young fan is taken into account. Austin Jones wanted his victims to “prove” they were his “biggest fans” by taking their clothes off. And so they did.
All of this suggests that the convergence of fans and creators can open up fresh new opportunities for exploitation. And given the platform’s click-fuelled economy, the people in the videos seem much less important than the consumability of the content. As reporter Rebecca Jennings argues in Vox, “there’s something unique to YouTube culture, where the idea of consent is inherently blurry”. And when the creation of consumable, click-friendly content takes priority over everything else, it perhaps makes sense for the wellbeing of humans (who both consume and help to create this content) to fall by the wayside.
After all, who’s gonna click on that?
Written by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based writer at MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @purpletank.
More on YouTubers: