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What is the point of changing your Facebook profile picture to a French flag?

If you aren’t personally affected by the attacks in Paris, then putting a filter on your profile picture can look a lot like a superficial repetition of a publicly acceptable opinion.

It is shocking, but death, terrorism and murder have become a normative image when we (in the western world) think about the Middle East. By contrast, and exemplified by the reactions to Friday’s attacks on Paris by social media and mainstream news, such attacks in western cities are received with total horror, fear and anger. For most people going about their daily lives in busy European cities, such attacks are assumed to occur predominantly in distant war zones and countries which are not politically stable. More and more, it is becoming clear that this imagined distance is just that, and that terrorism is becoming increasingly transnational.

Friday’s attacks on Paris have, once again, brought the concept of terrorism and the danger of spontaneous death, through no fault of one’s own, into the forefront of many people’s minds. We are aware that such attacks are extremely difficult to predict and prevent. This fear of impending danger is heightened by the fact that Friday’s events took place in relatively “local” regions of Paris – it was not the Sorbonne, or the Louvre or Gare du Nord that was targeted, but a series of Friday night hotspots packed with local Parisians.

People interacting on social media forums have been extremely quick and vocal in their reactions to Friday’s attacks. However, this seems to have elicited two main reactions: the first is that small changes and demonstrations, such as changing one’s Facebook profile picture to include the French flag, are kind acts of support. The idea is that collectively we are stronger – that wherever we can, we will help each other.

However, the second, perhaps more cynical or perhaps only more nuanced, opinion, which I heard many people suggest over weekend, is that such proclamations are short-term, pointless and somewhat selfish. If none of your Facebook friends were personally affected by the attacks, then the only people who will see your new profile picture and so-called declaration of support are those who do not need supporting. By changing a photo of yourself for a week, you are doing nothing for the victims; instead, you are making the issue about yourself, by making your public, online persona appear more sympathetic. These arbitrary changes mean nothing in real terms, and they belittle the seriousness of the situation in Paris by the fact that they are in the company of videos of dancing dogs or memes of Kylie Jenner. Thus, some people view these acts of “support” as insensitive and indicative only of the depressing idea that people love to be part of a crisis.

Some of my French friends responded to another friend’s status which expressed this scepticism yesterday, saying that, to the contrary, they found the images of support encouraging and consoling, even if they did not know the people who were posting images of the Eifel tower or quotes from Martin Luther King; the point was that citizens from across the world were with them in spirit. Are these opinions – those of the people who are most in need of consoling – more valid than those of others, further removed from the situation, who are more critical?

Ultimately, it falls to the individual to decide. Personally, I find these social media – I want to call them fads – trends, such as changing one’s profile picture to reflect current affairs, superficial. Take, for example, the large number of people who changed their pictures to incorporate the rainbow flag after the American Supreme Court passed gay marriage. The vast majority of these people had done nothing to aid the LGBT community’s fight, and some campaigners were unhappy about people jumping on their victorious bandwagon. I’m sure that such people were in full support of gay marriage as a concept, and, of course, you can support a cause without actively participating. However, taking a strongly positioned stance in public – and I think this issue of “public” is the crucial point – on any given issue or event once it has occurred does, to me, seem superficial. Is this merely people pointing out that they are aware of current affairs and repeating a publicly acceptable opinion – indeed, the dominant, preferred discourse? How much does that count for?

Social media can be extremely useful, and I applaud the PorteOuverte hashtag on Twitter, which afforded many stranded Parisians the help and comfort they desperately needed on Friday night. This is the way social media, and strangers actively participating in a crisis, works best. To me, this makes so much more sense than a swiftly changed profile picture, doubtless prompted by a newsfeed cluttered with identical changes – a change made in order to be seen to publicly agree that, yes, this has been a tragedy. Such a statement is unnecessary – I won’t assume that, just because you didn’t change your picture, you are somehow condoning these atrocious acts of violence. By sending someone a personal, private message you let them know that you are thinking about them; by making a general, public statement, the sympathy and goodwill you express is impersonal and somehow misdirected.

Some people think social media is a good thing, and an almost limitless and helpful resource; some people think it cheapens statements of support because they are two-a-penny. Some people are learning about current affairs through engaging with social media, while others deplore the fact that many seem only to be able to express horror and anger when the violence is directed at people and places close to home. Perhaps there is no real answer – you cannot know with what sincerity something has been typed, nor what any given individual has done or tried to do in the name of a stranger.

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"It's just a prank, bro": inside YouTube’s most twisted genre

Despite endless headlines and media scrutiny, catchphrases such as "it was a social experiment" and "block the haters" have allowed YouTube's dangerous pranking culture to continue unregulated. 

A year and five months after the worst prank video ever was uploaded to the internet, its crown has been usurped. In November 2015, YouTuber Sam Pepper made headlines after he filmed a video entitled “KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK”. In the video, Pepper kidnaps a man before forcing him to watch his friend be “murdered” by a masked figure. Rocking on the chair he has been tied to, the victim sobs and shouts: “We’re just kids”.

Last week, an actual child – aged nine – was victim to a similarly distressing “prank”. Michael and Heather Martin, of the YouTube channel DaddyOFive, poured disappearing ink on to their son Cody’s carpet before – in Heather’s words – “flipping out” on the child.

“What the fuck did you do,” yells Heather to summon Cody to his room. “I swear to God I didn’t do that,” screams and cries Cody as his parents verbally berate him. His face goes red; he falls to his knees.

You won’t find either of these videos on either of their creators’ channels today. After considerable backlash, Pepper deleted his video and DaddyOFive have now made all of their videos (bar one) private. The Martins have faced international scrutiny after being called out by prominent YouTuber Philip DeFranco, who collated a video of clips in which Cody is “pranked” by his family. In one, Cody appears to be pushed face-first into a bookcase by his father. In another, a visibly distressed Cody sobs while his father says: “It’s just a prank bro.”

These five words have been used to justify some of the most heinous pranks in YouTube history. Sam Pepper famously called a video in which he pinched the bottoms of unsuspecting women, a “social experiment”. Usually, though, creators’ excuses follow a pattern. “It was just a prank,” they say. Then, if the heat doesn't subside: “Actually, it was fake.”

Three months after his “KILLING BEST FRIEND” prank, Pepper claimed the video – and all of his other prank videos – were staged. In a video entitled “Family Destroyed Over False Aquisations [sic]” the Martins have now also claimed that their videos are scripted. “We act them out,” says Michael. It seems many on the internet remain sceptical. The Child Protection Services website for Maryland – where the Martins live – has crashed after Redditors encouraged one another to report the family. If the Martins’ videos are indeed staged, Cody is one of the shining child actors of our time.

Though the Martins might yet face severe consequences for their pranks, it wouldn’t be surprising if they didn’t.  The “Just a prank”/“No it’s fake” cycle means that despite multiple headline-grabbing backlashes, YouTube pranking culture continues to thrive. Boyfriends pretend to throw their girlfriend’s cats out windows; fathers pretend to mothers that their sons have died. YouTubers deliberately step on strangers' feet in order to provoke fights. Sometimes, yes, pranksters are arrested for faking robberies, but in the meantime their subscribers continue to grow in their millions.

At present, there is no regulatory body that examines YouTube. Pranksters who break the law are arrested, but children whose daily lives are filmed for the site are not protected by the same regulations that safeguard child actors from being overworked or exploited. Though the communications authority Ofcom has guidelines about wind-up calls and consent, it does not regulate YouTube. The BBC were famously fined £150,000 by the body after Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross prank called Andrew Sachs, yet internet pranks remain out of its jurisdiction.

Though YouTube removes videos that breach its “Community Guidelines”, it seems illogical that we trust the service to police itself. Since the invention of the radio, we have assumed that independent bodies are needed to scrutinise the media – so why you should the largest video-sharing platform on the planet be exempt? No one is truly looking out for either the pranking victims or the children of YouTube. God forbid, like Cody, if you are both.

It is also arguable that YouTube pranks need more regulation than those broadcast on TV. Britain’s favourite pranking shows revolve around humiliating comedians themselves – Trigger Happy TV, Balls of Steel, Jackass – or are very soft (think a man pretending to be both a mime and a policeman) in nature. When someone is outright humiliated on TV, it’s because they are seen to be “fair game”, such as in Comedy Central’s Fameless Prankers, where people desperate to be famous are forced into increasingly humiliating situations. On YouTube, there are no consent forms or waivers to ensure filming remains ethical, and YouTube pranksters often target more vulnerable people.

“There’s an element of power here with the parents and it seems this is very top-down,” says Jonathan Wynn, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts who has written on pranks in the past. Wynn explains that traditionally pranks mock status and hierarchy, such as when court jesters taunted kings. When pranks come from the top down, Wynn says they allow a group to bond emotionally – arguably something the Martins are attempting as a family. Nonetheless, Wynn notes this would work better if the children also pranked their parents equally. “In this case the status differential is quite high, when you have children and parents.”

Traditionally, the mainstream media has had little room for this type of content. In 2012, two radio DJs attempted to prank the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton by calling the hospital she was staying at, but instead tricked two nurses. When one of these nurses, Jacintha Saldanha, died by suicide days later, the episode seemed the ultimate illustration of the recklessness of pranks that “punch down”.

Conversely, status differentials are a large part of YouTube prank culture. Rather than attacking people in power, YouTube pranks are often played by those in power (the YouTube famous) on those who have lower social status. Frequently, boyfriends prank girlfriends, for example, and since 2014, white pranksters have filmed “in the hood” pranks provoking young black men. In “The N Word Prank!!” famous internet prankster Roman Atwood goes around saying “What’s up my neighbour” to people of colour, knowing that it will be misheard as a racial slur. In the context of this pranking culture, a parent pranking a child to the point of tears seems almost inevitable.

Perhaps, then, it is easy to understand why Michael and Heather Martin “prank” their children – it is harder to understand why anyone is watching. The DaddyOFive channel has over 750,000 subscribers, with over 7,000 of these subscribing after Philip DeFranco’s video accused the family of “abusing” their children. In order to defend themselves, the Martins initially employed another YouTube rhetoric, on top of “just a prank bro”. In a since deleted video, they invited their fans to “block the haters”.

This phrase is ingrained in online culture, and has allowed internet celebrities to dismiss criticism for years. By painting anyone who is critical as “jealous” or a “hater”, YouTubers can ensure their fans ignore their words and therefore stay loyal. In a video response to Philip DeFranco, the Martins riffed off a popular meme and placed spoons over their eyes to symbolise this mentality, and now fans as young as 12 are copying this action to show their support. When I search the hashtag used by the family’s supporters to see if anyone might be willing to explain why they still love the channel, I am faced with the reality that most of DaddyOFive’s fans are children. Though YouTube’s minimum sign-up age is 13, there is nothing really stopping children from watching – and normalising – harmful content, particularly when it is disguised as a “prank”.

In this context, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether a prank is faked. Sam Pepper might have asked his friend's permission before he fake-kidnapped him, and perhaps Michael Martin was only pretending when he pushed his son into a bookcase. Neither of these facts will prevent children – 19 percent of whom have a desire to be famous – from copying these actions in order to promote their own YouTube channels. Even if a YouTuber is punished for a dangerous pranking video, there are thousands of other pranksters ready and willing to take their place. 

It remains to be seen whether the Martins will continue with their YouTube channel. At the end of their now infamous invisible ink prank, Michael asks Cody to “do the outro” – the concluding section of a YouTube video. Wiping his nose and still red in the face, Cody rattles off his script at alarming speed.“Thank you guys for watching this video if you like this video and want to see more videos like this one leave a comment down the section below and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat… and don’t forget to… Like and Subscribe.” 

Since the backlash, Michael has added a new line into the “About” section of the DaddyOFive YouTube channel. After reiterating that the videos are fake, he writes: “no child was harmed in the making of our videos”. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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