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Is there any truth in the rumours of a YouTube “paedophile ring”?

Talk among high-profile YouTube users of paedophilic activity on the video-sharing site began spreading late last week.

“Hi, internet friends. There is a paedophile ring on YouTube.”

So starts a five-minute-long video by YouTuber ReallyGraceful, a romance author who makes tri-weekly videos “diving down the rabbit hole of truth”. ReallyGraceful created her video after a Reddit post claimed that child pornography could be found on YouTube if a user searched the words “Webcam video from”.

Since then, many big name YouTubers have followed suit in trying to expose an alleged paedophile ring on the site. Last week, Pyrocynical, a British YouTuber with over one and a half million subscribers, created a video called “Child Exploitation on YouTube”, discussing “Webcam video from” videos of children twerking or filmed from sexually suggestive angles, many of which had accumulated millions of views and hundreds of predatory comments. He notes that none of the videos contained actual nudity.

“This is essentially softcore child porn,” he says in the video, before later adding: “YouTube has the ability to crack down on this shit but they choose not to.”

If you search “Webcam video from” on YouTube today, no such videos will be found. YouTube relies on a system of users and “trusted flaggers” to highlight videos that violate its policies, and it appears that, after the videos were exposed by top YouTubers, the content has been removed.

“YouTube has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual content involving minors,” a YouTube spokesperson says. “Engaging in any type of activity that sexualises minors – including leaving inappropriate comments – will immediately result in an account termination. We encourage users to flag videos or comments for our review.”

Although it is apparent that some sexually suggestive content was hosted on YouTube, and that predators also aggregated innocent videos of children, is there any truth to rumours that “Webcam video from” is a secret code for paedophiles, and that a ring – which is to say, a group of people acting together to find, upload, and share the content – is operating on the site?

YouTube’s “webcam capture” feature was discontinued at the beginning of 2016, but it previously allowed users to upload content directly from their webcams which would then be titled “Webcam video from” followed by the date and time. Most of these videos were innocent, though it is apparent from comments posted on such videos – with the “Webcam video from” title – that predators used the search term to find content of children. Accusations that paedophiles downloaded, reuploaded and monetised these videos are hard to prove or disprove, though it is possible, considering how long such videos were left up. Most of these videos were – before they were removed – a few years old, and the trend seems to be an obsolete one that was only discovered recently.

Comments from “Webcam video from” videos, via Imgur

This wouldn't be the first time that paedophilic activity has been discovered on YouTube. Last April, a spate of “mummy vloggers” stopped filming their children after discovering that their videos were embedded into paedophilic playlists on the video-sharing site.

“Before the internet, someone with a sexual interest in children had to take lots of risks,” Karl Hopwood, a member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, told me at the time. “They needed to loiter near schools, go to the beach or park. Now, they can browse huge amounts of content from the privacy of their own homes, and no one knows they have done it.”

It is clear, then, that predatory users can abuse YouTube to find, aggregate, and share content of children, but the term “paedophile ring” muddies the story slightly. The phrase implies some sort of organisation or central power, and ReallyGraceful connected it to “Pizzagate”, the conspiracy theory, favoured by some Donald Trump supporters, that a pizza shop in Washington DC is a front for a Democratic paedophile ring visited by Hillary Clinton.

“You can say all day that this has nothing to do with Pizzgate but clearly it has everything to do with Pizzagate because there is a paedophile ring out in the freaking open on YouTube,” she said in her video.  

ReallyGraceful also uses her channel to spread stories about “#TwitterGate”, an alleged paedophile ring on Twitter. “The story that broke this morning involves the very platform that was trying to supress Pizzagate,” she says in her video on the topic. In her video about YouTube’s “paedophile ring” she says: “The second one of us uploads a Pizzagate video to YouTube, we get flagged for some ridiculous reason.” ReallyGraceful voted for Trump and has previously created videos questioning Barack Obama's birth certificate

The rhetoric of “paedophile rings” has been seized as a political tool by some US right-wingers to argue for their cause, as well as attack their enemies and generate hysteria about the need to “drain the swamp”. This new-found trend of “exposing” paedophile rings and using this exposure to bolster one’s own political beliefs can obscure legitimate concerns about children’s online safety. While predators may in the past have used YouTube to prey on children, the sensationalism of a handful of professional YouTubers in telling the story has obscured a real and important issue.

If you identify troubling content on YouTube, click the flag underneath the video or the three dots next to the comment in question. A staff of specialists monitor all reports 24/7 and will take action to remove any offending content. If you are concerned about a child’s online safety, you can find advice or make a report to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre at: ceop.police.uk.

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

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"Death to all Jews": Why Disney dropped YouTube's biggest star PewDiePie

The Minecraft vlogger turned internet celebrity's taste for shock comedy was too much for the family-focused corporation. 

Disney has cut ties with YouTube’s most-subscribed star after he paid two Sri Lankan men five dollars to hold up a sign that read “DEATH TO ALL JEWS”.

Feel free to read that sentence again, it’s not going anywhere.

A still from PewDiePie's video, via YouTube

PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, has over 53 million subscribers on YouTube, where his videos about gaming earned him over $15m last year. The 27-year-old, whose content is popular with children, came under fire this month after the Wall Street Journal investigated anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In one video, a man dressed as Jesus says “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong”, while in another Kjellberg used freelance marketplace Fiverr to pay two men to hold up the offensive sign. The videos have since been deleted.

Jumpcut.

The Walt Disney Company became affiliated with PewDiePie after they bought Maker Studios, a network of YouTube stars, for nearly $1bn in 2014. Following the WSJ’s investigation, Maker dropped the star, stating: “Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate. Maker Studios has made the decision to end our affiliation with him going forward.”

When you sack a YouTube Star, makes no difference who they are.

Via Wall Street Journal

But why should the story stop there? Neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer are now defending PewDiePie, while the notoriously politically-incorrect 4Chan forum /pol/ have called him “our guy”.  

In his defence, Kjellberg wrote a blog post denying an affiliation with anti-Semitic groups and explained his actions, writing: “I was trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online.” In a video last December the star also said: "It's extremely annoying how I can't make jokes on my channel without anyone quoting it as actual facts, like something I actually said", before dressing as a soldier and listening to one of Hitler's speeches while smiling. 

Pause.

(If all of this sounds familiar, recall when disgraced YouTuber Sam Pepper claimed a video in which he groped unsuspecting females was a “social experiment”).

Play.

And yet the story still isn’t over. Disney have learned a hard lesson about assuming that YouTubers are the squeaky clean fairy-tale princes and princesses they often appear to be. Shay Butler, one of the original founders of Maker Studios, yesterday quit the internet after it was alleged he sent sexual messages to a cam girl via Twitter.

Butler is one of the original "family vloggers", and has spent nine years uploading daily videos of his five children to YouTube. A practicing Mormon, Butler has become emblematic of family values on the site. “My heart is sick,” he wrote on Twitter, neither confirming nor denying the allegations of his infidelity, “I have struggled with alcoholism for years… My purpose is to rehab.” 

The result is a very dark day for YouTube, which has now dropped Kjellberg from its premier advertising network, Google Preferred, and cancelled the second series of the star's reality show, Scare PewDiePie

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