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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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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.