Sam Pepper via YouTube
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The story of Sam Pepper: how a British YouTuber incurred the wrath of the internet

The Dapper Laughs of online pranks has finally gone too far.

Last night, a Twitter user claiming to be "a voice" for hacker collective Anonymous sent out a series of angry tweets slamming a video featuring "violent abuse". The user wasn't referring to Isis, which is the subject of an ongoing campaign by the hacker group, but a young, turquoise-haired British man named Sam Pepper. 

Pepper is a YouTube star who came to fame after appearing in the 11th series of reality show Big Brother. He's known for his prank YouTube videos posted under the username "Sam", which have in the past involved such hilarious japes as wearing a prosthetic old man's face and climbing into bed with his own girlfriend. He now lives in LA, but has made videos with other prominent British YouTubers, including, of course, Zoella. 

So on the face of it, it's a little surprising that @TheAnonMessage blasted out this tirade against the star last night as a series of tweets to his 170,000-odd followers:

We've been notified of a sick, disturbing video uploaded by @sampepper. Yet again, he uses violent abuse to garner subscribers.

This is something that we cannot stand for. This so-called prank should bring shame to the YouTube community for supporting this imbecile.

This video must be taken down. @SamPepper you have been warned. You have 24 hours or we will unleash fucking hell on you.

The video in question, "KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK | Ft. Sam & Colby", was published on 29 November but already has over two million views. In it, Pepper teams up with Colby, half of the YouTube duo Sam & Colby, to pretend to, er, kill him, and terrify the other Sam in the process.

Sam and Colby drive into shot, then both get out of the car to check the oil. A figure wearing a black balaclava grabs Sam, put a bag over his head, tapes up his hands and dumps him in the boot of the car, all with Colby's help. The pair take him to a rooftop, where the bag is removed, and Pepper - the masked attacker - shoots Sam in the head with a fake gun. The visual references to Isis are hard to ignore:  

Photo: Sam Pepper via YouTube

What follows is a genuinely disturbing thirty seconds in which Sam screams and cries, eventually drowned out and replaced in the video's edit by tinkly piano music. Finally, Colby stands up and reveals he isn't dead. 

YouTubers responded angrily to the prank. Commenters called it "cruel" and seemed genuinely distressed by Sam's experience. The video's approval ratings, represented by thumbs up and thumbs down, are a good indication of audience reaction: 

So what happens if Pepper doesn't remove the video within 24 hours? Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous told me that "[@TheAnonMessage] has earned the wrath of Anonymous for acting irresponsibly" in the past (most notably, the user launched an attack on the wrong Ferguson police officer), and isn't part of the main Anonymous group. However, this doesn't mean the user couldn't attack Sam's channel or website. Either way, @TheAnonMessage has leapt on the coattails of a controversy that seems to have caught the imagination of large swathes of social media.

From Pepper's own point of view, though, it's easy to see why the whole furore is a little mystifying. His entire empire is founded on pushing boundaries of acceptability, and no one involved in this particular prank is angry - the video includes an epilogue where he chats to Sam and Colby, and Sam grins and exclaims "that was crazy!". In an interview on YouTube channel DramaAlert, the three defend the video, and say the prank was fair game as Sam has been in the "video prank arena" for years and didn't object to it being posted. 

There's a parallel with the comedian Daniel O'Reilly (also known by his persona Dapper Laughs) here: both are young male entertainers who built an online audience through pushing the envelope with humour and pranks, and are then a bit shocked when they cross an invisible line and are lambasted for behaviour not dissimilar to the actions that earned them followers in the first place. 

Pepper, like Dapper, has been accused of misogyny, and even sexual harassment in his videos - he removed one, "Fake Hand Pinch Prank", which involved grabbing women in public using a fake hand, following online outcry. Multiple women have also accused him of sexual assault and harassment, which led to the British YouTube community distancing itself from him over the past couple of years. Yet one of his most watched videos is "How to Make Out with Strangers”, in which he approaches random women in Venice Beach, LA, says things like “I’m seeing which beautiful girls would like to make out…with me,” and kisses them. The video received none of the same criticism, and earned him over 17 million views.

The difference between the two videos lies, of course, in consent, as Pepper at least pretends to ask the women's permission in the Venice Beach video. Yet as YouTuber Laci Green gently points out in an open letter to Pepper written at the time: "You pressure women on camera to make out with you - again, many of whom are visibly uncool with it. Confused and caught off guard, they painfully follow through with your requests, clearly uncomfortable."

What's clear is that the internet is still trying to figure out what is acceptable in the realm of humour. Internet-friendly humour tends to be slapstick, brash, irrelevant, and involve making fun of gormless members of the public. But pushed to extremes - the extremes which can seem necessary to make a name for yourself in the saturated vlogger market - these gags can easily turn nasty. 

 

Update 2/12: 

@TheAnonNews, an account which boosts campaigns from other Anonymous accounts, has tweeted its disapproval of @TheAnonMessage's campaign, thereby distancing Anonymous from it: 

Update 14/12/2015:

In response to the backlash, Pepper offered to delete his entire account if his critics donated a total of $1.5m. In a video uploaded for only an hour, he launched a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign, which was also then deleted shortly after. The video was in response to a 200,000-strong petition calling for Pepper's channel to be deleted.

Update 22/2/2016:

Pepper has deleted all his tweets and changed his YouTube channel to "private", meaning all videos (including the one above) are no longer viewable. 

His only explanation so far is this tweet: 

Update 25/2/2016:

Pepper has finally uploaded a video explaining his disappearance:

In the out-of-focus, rambling video, which lacks any of Pepper's usual snazzy editing or effects, he promises to speak to the viewer "like a friend" and "be completely honest". He admits that many of his pranks were faked, and the overall effect is reminiscent of Instagrammer and model Essena O'Neill's admission that much of her online presence was constructed

Some extracts:

 "I did silly pranks. I did stuff to make people laugh, just really silly, harmless, dumb stuff....The people involved in the videos would always laugh."

"I'm not telling you this for sympathy. I'm here because of me." 

"All these other prank channels came out, and they'd be doing more and more crazy pranks. I'd be watching saying 'there's no way they're actually doing that'. All this stuff is fake. All it was about was the end goal. So I worked out that I can do these pranks, I can just fake them. I can make fake videos."

"I wanted to get views, I wanted to make money. It's my job. I made videos so I can live."

"What I wasn't thinking this whole time was that if I have to fake a video, that means its too crazy for me to do for real. If you can't do it in real life, then you shouldn'lt be doing that as a fake prank. " 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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The second coming of Gordon Ramsay

A star is reborn. 

It would be a lie to say that Gordon Ramsay ever disappeared. The celebrity chef made his television debut in 1997 and went on to star in shows in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. There hasn’t been a lull in Ramsay’s career, which has arguably gone from strength to strength. In 2000, he was cooking for Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair – in 2008, he ate the raw heart of a dead puffin.

Left: Gordon Ramsay shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. Right: Gordon Ramsay hugging a puffin (different from the one he ate).

Yet we are, undeniably, in the middle of a Ramsay renaissance. How? How could a man that conquered the last twenty years of cookery-based television have an upsurge in popularity? There are only so many television channels – so many amateur donkey chefs. Wrong. The internet has enabled a Ramsay resurgence, the second act of a play overflowing with blood, sweat, and French onion soup.

Wow.

We all, of course, know about Gordon’s Twitter account. Although started in 2010, the social media profile hit the headlines in February this year when Ramsay began rating food cooked by the world’s amateur-amateur chefs. But other elements of Ramsay’s internet celebrity are more miraculous and mysterious.

His official YouTube channel uploads, on average, three videos a week. Decades old clips from Kitchen Nightmares accumulate over three million views in as many days. A 15,000 follower-strong Facebook fan page for the show – which premiered in 2007 and ended in 2014 – was set up on 19 June 2017.

Wow, wow, wow, wow. Wow.       

A Google Trends graph showing an April 2017 surge in Ramsay's popularity, after a decline in 2014.                                      

What makes a meme dank? Academics don’t know. What is apparent is that a meme parodying Gordon Ramsay’s fury over missing lamb sauce (first aired on Hell’s Kitchen in 2006) had a dramatic upsurge in popularity in December 2016. This is far from Gordon’s only meme. Image macros featuring the star are captioned with fictitious tirades from the chef, for example: “This fish is so raw… it’s still trying to find Nemo”. A parody clip from The Late Late Show with James Cordon in which Ramsay calls a woman an “idiot sandwich” has been watched nearly five million times on YouTube.

And it is on YouTube where Ramsay memes most thrive. The commenters happily parrot the chef’s most memable moments, from “IT’S RAW” to the more forlorn “fuck me” after the news something is frozen. “HELLO MY NAME IS NINOOOOO!” is an astonishingly popular comment, copied from a clip in which a Kitchen Nightmares participant mocks his brother. If you have not seen it – you should.

But what does all this mean for Ramsay’s career? His YouTube channel and Facebook page are clearly meticulously managed by his team – who respond to popular memes by clipping and cutting new videos of classic Ramsay shows. Although this undoubtedly earns a fortune in ad revenue, Ramsay’s brand has capitalised on his internet fame in more concrete ways. The chef recently voiced Gordon Ramsay Dash, a mobile game by Glu Games Inc in which you can cook with the star and he will berate or praise you for your efforts. Ten bars of gold – which are required to get upgrades and advance in the game – cost 99p.

Can other celebrity chefs learn from Ramsay? A generation will never forgive that twisted, golden piece of meat, Jamie Oliver, for robbing them of their lunch time Turkey Twizzlers. But beyond this, the internet’s love is impossible to game. Any celebrity who tried to generate an online following similar to Ramsay’s would instantly fail. Ramsay’s second coming is so prolific and powerful because it is completely organic. In many ways, the chef is not resposible for it. 

In truth, the Ramsay renaissance only worked because it was - though the chef himself would not want to admit it - completely raw.

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