How YouTube’s fame culture fails the millions who turn to the site hoping to find themselves – TenEighty speaks to a panel of feminists, involved in the UK YouTube community, to discuss the culture that allowed fans to be abused by their idols.
From the shy and socially awkward to the spectacularly extrovert, the YouTube community has long been a safe place for all kinds of people to express themselves. But a wave of sexual and emotional abuse allegations against prominent YouTubers has rocked the community, throwing into question whether or not YouTube is as safe as we once thought it was.
But the core issues – celebrity culture and hero worship, the nature or relationships between fans and creators, education about consent, parenting and emotional development, and patriarchal society – are bigger than just YouTube.
“YouTube is always described as a bubble, but it’s not,” says Fawn Mead, a video production assistant and ex-girlfriend of one of the accused. “Those who were first involved with YouTube felt they needed a bubble from reality, but the bubble doesn’t really exist. It’s still the real world, and in the real world, some people are nice, some people are awful, good and bad things happen. No one is safe just because they’re in the YouTube community.”
Fawn found herself at the centre of one of the scandals in August 2013, when her former boyfriend was accused of having an affair, in which he sexually and emotionally abused a fan. Tumblr posts detailing the allegations received thousands of notes and forced a statement from the perpetrator, in which he admitted cheating on Fawn and making unwanted advances on the accuser.
“I’ve had people berate me for posting online first about it, rather than going to the police,” says Fawn. “But when I found out what happened, the first thing I wanted to do was make sure everyone knew. The only way I was going to do that was going on all social media sites and spending a day telling everyone. That was the only way I could protect the masses.
“I feel that it took a lot of bravery for the victim to even come to me. I was the girlfriend of the abuser. It took a lot to convince her to even make a statement about it online. It took a lot for both of us.”
Hatti Rex, a model, illustrator, and YouTuber, has also experienced backlash regarding her reaction to the scandals. “I’ve had men tell me how I should react to this whole situation,” she says. “First as a female, and secondly as someone whose been assaulted before, and I don’t really appreciate it.”
She believes that if the YouTube community was more aware of feminist issues, it would be better equipped at dealing with these scandals, but recognises why that’s not currently the case. “There’s no reason to bother with it, because most of the creators on YouTube are guys. But they should remember that their audiences are mostly girls, and should be an advert for the things these girls should believe in.”
Rebecca Nixon, a feminist blogger and senior social media executive, is far more cynical about ‘feminism’ within the community. Many of the men who have been accused of sexual abuse, she points out, self-identified as feminists.
“YouTube is an environment where you have to know what the word patriarchy means, you need to know what first, second, or third wave feminism is, but that’s it,” she says. “That’s enough to make you acceptable, to be liked, adored, trusted and embraced by the community.”
Fawn agrees with this, noting that guys in the YouTube community seem to know more about feminism than the average guy in a pub, but in many ways, this makes it worse. “The fact they see all these posts relating to patriarchy, misogyny and feminism, and they hear all these voices, and they still don’t really get it, is horrific,” she says. “These men never put themselves as a catalyst between two things: the cause and effects of misogyny.”
“It’s cognitive dissonance,” explains Rebecca. “When somebody says ‘I love animals, they’re so cute, here’s a picture of a cow I’m going to reblog’ and then they go home and eat a cheeseburger. These men don’t make the connection between ‘I call myself a feminist and I say positive things about women’ to ‘I treat women like shit’.
“There’s a difference between being proactive in learning and growing as a person, to just going along with the culture,” she adds. “When you’re going along with the culture, your actions and values are disconnected. You go along with what everyone else is saying. You don’t have to do or be anything.”
“It’s devastating that it’s come to something this extreme for the community to care…”
“Unfortunately, and I say this with the heaviest of hearts, the biggest way feminism has come out on YouTube for the masses is through these abuse cases,” says Fawn. “And it’s devastating that it’s had to come to something this extreme, but otherwise, the community wouldn’t care.”
All three believe that patriarchy is partly to blame for the culture that allowed the alleged events to occur, but it’s seen as something so widespread that it needs to be tackled elsewhere first. “Which I think is crazy,” says Fawn. “People are listening to YouTubers now. Television programmes are replicating YouTube. We have the voice of the generation sitting there, but because it’s so influenced by male-dominated society, it’s not making change.”
Hatti observes that YouTubers now have a similar amount of power to that of celebrities, but with one key difference. “Celebrities have all this money, for PR and security, and that’s put in place so they’re not going to be mobbed by thousands of people,” she says. “But also, they’re not going to end up in sticky situations. It’s bad that YouTube is so unregulated.”
“YouTubers didn’t want to be like mainstream media celebrities,” adds Fawn. “But now YouTube is part of the machine, and I think content creators need to get over that and accept that they are celebrities in their own way, and start taking responsibility for their actions.”
Like celebrities, YouTubers share their lives through their social media presences, with tweets, blogs, pictures, and videos. Is the extent to which they allow people into their lives part of what allowed abuse to occur? “I would never want this community to be any less than sharing,” says Fawn. “It shouldn’t be blamed for the people out there who are just awful. The people out there who decide to do bad things to others.”
“It’s not the internet’s fault,” agrees Hatti. “[That]’s like someone who goes into a school, shoots loads of people and then blames it on the gun.”
“If none of these guys were manipulative assholes, it wouldn’t matter,” agrees Rebecca. ”Problem is, there are these manipulative men, and they’ve got legions of fans that are totally devoted to them, totally loyal to them, and feel like they know them. And there’s no accountability.
“Out in the big bad world, when there’s a case like Ian Watkins or Jimmy Savile, all of it is reported on by the media and investigated by the police, because people care,” she continues. “If you’re YouTube famous, you’re not real-world famous, and there’s no reason for the BBC, the Telegraph, or the Guardian to report on it, because no-one will read it.” [BBC Newsbeat’s story on one of the accused had not run at the time of our conversation.]
Rebecca believes that the YouTube community needs to take more responsibility for the people it embraces, and flag up these cases. “The mainstream media aren’t aware of these internet celebrities, and how much access and influence they have in the big bad world,” she says.
The alleged incidents have shown how fan/creator relationships can go wrong. What’s the alternative? “I don’t think a fan/creator relationship can ever be healthy, because when you meet, one person already likes the other one more,” says Hatti. “The creator can abuse that fact, whether they mean to or not.”
“But I like the idea that the creators have these relationships with their fans,” says Fawn. “It’s one of the few times in media where the creators react directly to what their fans wants. The fans are very influential to the creator, and that’s great.”
“There is a problem with these fans that feel they deeply and personally know these YouTubers,” adds Rebecca. “I saw post from girls who’ve been brainwashed by these dudes, saying ‘no, no, no, I’ve been watching their videos for years, he’s a lovely person, he would never do something like that’.”
“Parents need to take responsibility for the fact their children are watching content online, and worshipping the ground these people walk on…”
Rebecca talks about how, during World War II, President Roosevelt would speak to the American people via the radio. For the first time, they felt a personal connection to the President, becoming emotionally invested and loyal to him. “We have that now,” she explains. “These boys are talking into their webcams, making eye contact through the computer, in a way that you’d normally only have in a conversation.
“Psychologically, these fans build a connection with this person, that they’ve never met and know nothing about, and they attribute the values the YouTuber has in their videos and their online presence directly to them,” she says. “They honestly believe it. And it’s not true, it’s not real, it’s constructed.”
“YouTubers themselves need to correct their behaviour, but also I think the fans need to be more wary, and not blindly trust the people they’re watching,” adds Hatti. “But it’s hard when you’re a kid, because that’s what you do: you listen to adults, your parents, your teachers, and you trust them.”
“And this is where the parents should step in,” says Rebecca. “Parents need to take responsibility for the fact their children are watching content online, and worshipping the ground these people walk on. That’s going to happen: it happened with the Beatles, it’s happening with One Direction. They’re going to fall in love with these idols. The difference is, your kid is never going to meet Harry Styles. Your kid will meet Alex Day, however, at whatever event, and they will be exposed to his power.”
“I think parents have got lazy,” Hatti says. “When I met PJ Liguori for the first time, my parents got his address, they’d seen his face and they’d spoken to him. These mums and dads don’t know these people, because their kids don’t know these people.”
Rebecca believes that, along with parents, the organisers of events such as Summer in the City, VidCon, and Playlist Live have a role to play, and need to make their events safer. “They really push this agenda of ‘make the kiddies feel safe’, when they’re not,” she says. “It’s not that they’ve known it’s going on and have turned a blind eye, no, but they’ve been complicit in this because they’re part of the reason it’s happened.”
She emphasises that it isn’t directly their fault, but the environment they put people in can be a deadly mix. “Usually at these gatherings, the wild fans and the content creators all stay in the same hotel,” she says. “Alcohol is readily available, and although the under-18s can’t buy it, there’s enough over-18s to buy it for them. There’s no chaperoning. There’s no adult supervision. Grown-ups organise it, but they don’t moderate it.”
Hatti believes another problem is that many YouTubers have ignored warning signs about their peers because of their subscriber count. “We’ve all heard things about prominent YouTubers before, and at the time, most people joke about it as if it isn’t serious,” she says. “Every time I would get these sort of vibes about someone, people would say that I was being a bitch or acting jealous, when I was genuinely concerned that some of these people might not be alright.
“If I ever did anything as awful as rape someone, I’d want everyone to never speak to me again,” she adds. “If you let me be that horrible to someone, and you’re fine with it, you’re not a real friend.”
“It’s because these guys are emotionally stunted,” suggests Rebecca. “They’ve never lived a day in the real world or worked a real job. They’ve got the brain of a 15 year old – which isn’t helped by the fact teenage girls adore them – and they don’t know how to be grown-up or have grown-up relationships. All they know is how to be powerful and dominating over someone else, and they think that’s love. That’s their idea of a relationship.
“No ramifications, no responsibilities, no thinking about other people’s feelings or the consequences of their actions. That’s what it’s like when you’re 15 and have a crush at school,” she continues. “I’m not going to make any excuses for any person whose over the age of 18, but acts like they’re 14, in high school, crushing on a minor, manipulating them, gossiping about them, trying to coerce them into sex. That’s disgusting at any age. But once you’re an adult, you need to take responsibility for your actions, and behave in a mature way when it comes to sex.”
All three girls agree that there isn’t enough education about consent. Nonetheless, Rebecca feels that there are additional issues to tackle in the YouTube community. “Consent is about saying ‘yes’,” she says. “But it doesn’t take into account the reason you may want to do the thing with this person – whatever degree of emotional or sexual intimacy it is – is not because you’re in an equal relationship with them, but because you worship them.
“This is the reason we have laws in place about certain ages,” she continues. “When you’re underage, you’re psychologically underdeveloped, and don’t have the ability to cognitively understand the difference between your emotions, your hero-worshipping feelings and ‘oh wow, I love this person’.”
“The worst thing about consent is that it makes it seem like it’s a box to be ticked,” explains Fawn, “but it’s more than that. You need to take into consideration what’s going on in the other person’s head, their thought and feelings. A verbal yes doesn’t always necessarily mean yes. If it takes a lot of effort to bring that person to that decision, then it’s not a yes. You’ve pressured them into saying yes.”
“You can tell if someone is not enjoying something,” adds Hatti. “I think it’s pretty obvious. You can tell, and you can stop.”
Fawn admires the efforts of the This Is Abuse campaign (which Charlie McDonnell and Jamal Edwards of SBTV have taken part in, and which predates the most recent allegations) as well as Hank and John Green’s plans to launch a taskforce fronted by victims and in partnership with rape and sexual abuse charities, and a series of videos addressing this topic. However, she feels that the transient nature of YouTube might mean it’s not enough.
“People can do all these great things and make all these videos, but tomorrow there will be a video of a dog wearing a hat, and everyone will forget about the consent campaign,” she says. “I’m not saying that these people are wasting their time, but unless the campaign is ongoing, it’s not going to cause change.”
“The root cause isn’t even consent,” says Rebecca. “The problem is that these guys, for some reason – which I believe is patriarchal conditioning – genuinely believe that sex is their right, that sex and women’s bodies is something they should have access to, that If they have emotional feelings like ‘love’ towards a person it entitles them to have physical intimacy with that person.
“They have all these beliefs and values ingrained in them, and no amount of campaigning is going to change the fact that these men are predators,” she continues. “Something has to stop with them.”
Rebecca believes the only way forward is complete intolerance. “The only way these people are going to learn that their behaviour is not acceptable is to hit them where it hurts,” she explains. “And the thing these men value most is their connections. Their social connections are what drive their online presence and success.”
“I deleted everyone who still had [the alleged abusers] as their friends on Facebook,” says Hatti, “and people went off at me for it. Why are they even mad at me? They should be getting mad about these horrendous crimes that have been committed, by people they still have as Facebook friends!”
So where do we, as a community, go from here? How do we make sure nothing like this ever happens again? “We are all at fault for ignoring the warning signs of these abusers, and I feel terrible for it,” says Fawn. “From here on out, if any YouTuber displays any behaviour that seems off, it’s up to us, their friends, to call them up on it. We need to monitor gatherings better and we need to look out for certain behaviours in people.”
“All we can do is try and create an environment where people feel safe to come forward,” adds Rebecca. “All this stuff came out at once for a reason. One person came forward and everyone else felt brave enough to speak up.
“People make jokes about me as this crazy angry feminist, but when you look at the facts, teenage girls are getting raped – of course I’m passionate. But you get silenced, you get written off as aggressive, as over-emotional, too invested, too political, too this and too that. Yet this is happening in our own community. Of course I’m angry.
“We need women to get angry about this stuff, and we need men to come alongside us and say ‘you know what, you’re right, there’s a problem here, what can we do to help?”