LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

How Vladimir Putin lost Ukraine

Putin’s war cost Russia its centuries-long shared identity with its neighbour. Now, Kyiv risks betraying the spirit of the Maidan revolution.

When the Russian inquest finally comes, the answer will be clear. It was President Vladimir Putin who lost Ukraine – after a millennium of shared east Slav identity. When the Ukrainian inquest into who lost the ­Euromaidan’s “Revolution of Dignity” finally comes, the answer, on the present evidence, will also be clear. It was an elite core of politicians and oligarchs who first worked a miracle in fighting Russia’s military Goliath to a stalemate – only to revert to kleptocratic business as usual when the acute threat eased.

Ukrainians’ consolidation of a distinct national identity after centuries of being regarded as a fuzzy subset of the dominant Russians – and after a quarter-century of independence – began in February 2014. It sounds banal to say that when one nation attacks a neighbour, especially if the two have regarded each other as brothers for a thousand years, the victims feel aggrieved and pull together against the attacker. But this is what happened when Putin launched his undeclared war on Ukraine, sent hooded “little green men” to take over Crimea’s regional parliament by intimidation, and then annexed the peninsula. The mutation of this early tactical success into strategic failure is best traced by reviewing the players and the dynamics as Ukraine held off Russia and crystallised its singular new identity.

On the Russian side only one actor matters: Putin. When the old Soviet Union split apart in 1991, its kleptocracy was replicated in its two biggest east Slav successor states. By 2015 Russia ranked a joint 119th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ukraine was 130th. A Wild East capitalism prevailed, in which emergent oligarchs carved up the state’s wealth through murky privatisation deals. But there was one main political difference between the two countries. Putin quickly restored the primacy of politicians over Russian tycoons after he became president. In Ukraine, oligarchs were able to use their new wealth to dominate politics.

When Putin suddenly broke out from Europe’s seven-decade peace order in February 2014, Western policymakers asked the diminished number of Kremlinologists in their midst why he was acting this way. Some, such as Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a military analyst, pointed to fear as the Russian president’s root instinct. Putin has shown little interest in economics; he has not worried about looming inflation or capital flight, or Russia’s distorting reliance on oil and gas revenues. What he was afraid of, it seemed, was unchecked democratic contagion: as transmitted from Poles in the 1980s to restive East Germans and then Czechs in 1989, to Ukrainians in the mid-2000s, and even on to Muscovites in 2011/12 before Putin managed to stop their street protests.

This analysis is plausible. In 1989, as a young officer of the Soviet Committee for State Security, Putin was serving with the KGB’s Dresden outpost. He saw the Berlin Wall fall – overnight, under the press of East Berliners who mistakenly thought it had been officially opened. He later faulted the then Soviet Communist Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, for failing to intervene militarily when the wall crumbled, or when protesters stormed the Stasi headquarters across the street from his office to halt the incineration of incriminating files by East Germany’s adjunct of the KGB. He watched Moscow’s 20 top divisions, which encircled Berlin for half a century after the glorious Soviet victory over Hitler in 1945, retreat ingloriously a thousand miles to the east.

Putin further witnessed the swift break­away of Moscow’s external empire, in the stampede of the freed central Europeans, from Estonia to Romania, to join the European Union and Nato, and the 1991 break-up of Moscow’s internal Soviet empire. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And as late as 2008 – 17 years after more than 92 per cent of Ukrainian citizens, including the 21 per cent ethnic Russian minority, had voted for independence – he told President George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”

***

Most agonising of all, in his first term as Russia’s president in the 21st century, Putin had to listen to American triumphalism about the series of pro-democracy “colour revolutions” in the streets of ex-communist Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. For him, as a career secret policeman, these revolutions represented no broad social yearning for “dignity”, as the Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa first phrased it. Rather, it was an inexplicable victory by American CIA manipulations – in what was Moscow’s own sphere of influence, by right – over the manipulations of Russia’s FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The uprising that aroused the most angst in the Kremlin was the Orange Revolution on Kyiv’s main square, or maidan, where protesters demanded and won a repeat of the 2004 election after blatant vote-rigging in favour of the then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian heir apparent to the Ukrainian presidency. It was bad enough for Moscow when the west Slavs in Poland and Czechoslovakia instantly ditched their Slavic identity for a European one in the 1990s: Poland uprooted systemic corruption, built robust democratic and judicial institutions, and went from having a poverty rate that matched Ukraine’s to a per capita GDP three times the size of its neighbour’s today. It was devastating when the Little Russians, too, began to do so, rejecting Yanukovych and Russia’s network of control in the rerun of the vote in 2004.

In the event, Putin need not have worried. The Orange Revolution self-destructed in the fratricide between its two top leaders, who forfeited leadership to Yanukovych in the reasonably fair 2010 election.

On the Ukrainian side of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, four figures stand out. The two chief rivals are the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko (worth $979m, and number six on Novoye Vremya magazine’s 2015 list of the richest Ukrainians), and the then governor of Dnipropet­rovsk in central Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskyi (number two on the list, at $1.9bn).

Poroshenko was a second-tier oligarch who had served briefly as foreign minister in the Orange Revolution government and as minister for trade and economic development under Yanukovych in 2012. He helped fund the pro-Europe, anti-corruption protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule from the movement’s spontaneous inception in November 2013, and his TV news outlet Channel 5 gave full coverage to the three-month agora and its estimated one million participants.

After Yanukovych finally sent his special police to suppress the protest by killing dozens of the demonstrators in late February, the Ukrainian president’s own Party of Regions deserted him. He absconded to Russia overnight with an estimated personal fortune of $12bn, amassed in four years in office. Parliament, by a majority that suddenly included the Party of Regions, appointed an interim president and government and set presidential elections for May 2014. The “Chocolate King”, as Poroshenko was nicknamed for his confectionery empire, was duly elected president of the new Ukraine with a 54 per cent majority.

Kolomoyskyi, who also holds Israeli and Cypriot citizenship, was called back to Ukraine from his Swiss residence by the improvised government just as Russia was annexing Crimea. He was appointed governor of his own regional stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk with a mandate to mount a defence against the Russia-stoked secession brewing in neighbouring eastern Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi was famed for his hostile takeovers of rival banks as well as oil, media and other firms. He quickly raised and underwrote several militias among the 40 to 50 volunteer battalions that sprang up to fight against westward spread of the start-up separatist Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) People’s Republics. These battalions were instrumental in holding the line against separatist/Russian forces and giving the Ukrainian state time to rebuild the army that Yanukovych had bled of its budget.

Two oligarchs who did not cast their lot in with post-Euromaidan Ukraine were Rinat Akhmetov (at $4.5bn still the richest Ukrainian, even after losing more than half of his wealth over the past year) and Dmytro Firtash, whose net worth has fallen to $1bn. Both had been leading supporters of Yanukovych and his party, and since his departure they have hedged their bets between Kyiv and Moscow. Their recent losses have resulted partly from a redistribution of their wealth to other oligarchs.

Akhmetov, the son of a coal miner who rose to become the “godfather” of the Donetsk clan – and the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club – has his coal and iron base in the war-ravaged Don Basin (Donbas) and relies on Moscow’s goodwill there. Firtash, who under President Yanukovych controlled the lucrative distribution of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe, is also dependent on Russia. In spring 2014, he asked the Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov to pay a record Austrian bail of €125m ($141m) in cash to get him out of jail. Under the bail terms, Firtash is barred from leaving Austria as he awaits the final legal decision on a US extradition request on charges of international bribery. Yet from Vienna he still wields his political clout, funds several Ukrainian parties across the political spectrum and, it is widely reported, brokered a division of power between Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitschko in the run-up to the May 2014 presidential election, in which Klitschko stood down as a candidate. (The former world heavyweight boxing champion is now mayor of Kyiv.)

***

Putin no doubt saw his annexation of Crimea – and his follow-on campaign to reconquer Catherine the Great’s “Novorossiya”, comprising the eastern 40 per cent of today’s Ukraine – as compensation for the abrupt downfall of his acolyte Yanukovych, and thus the end of Russia’s rightful suzerainty over all of Ukraine. Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians, on the contrary, saw the first formal takeover of a neighbour’s land in Europe since the Second World War as Putin’s return to a 19th-century concept of “might makes right”, as well as a violation of international law and treaties Moscow had signed to respect Ukrainian borders.

The West was cautious in reacting. It baulked at getting sucked into another intervention in a theatre of complicated logistics and little geopolitical interest. It knew as well as Putin did that Moscow enjoys escalation dominance in its home region by virtue of geography, its claim to a vital interest in Ukraine that the West lacks, and the Russian president’s willpower in a world of European peace and US exhaustion. It had no desire to put Putin’s repeated brandishing of his nuclear weapons to the test over a second-order confrontation. The West therefore responded by imposing financial rather than military sanctions, which Putin prematurely scorned as a pinprick.

In addition, Putin misread Ukraine’s military resilience. Easy success in Crimea – and strong domestic approval of his boasts that he was restoring Russia’s greatness in the world – emboldened him to probe further in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s ragtag army had put up no resistance in Crimea, for three reasons. First, years of embezzlement of defence budgets had left it with only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers and with two-decade-old weapons. Second, it was subverted by the many Ukrainian officers who were loyal to Moscow rather than Kyiv. Finally, there was Ukrainians’ sheer disbelief – despite Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s – that Russians would actually shoot at their proclaimed younger brothers.

Putin expected an equally cost-free operation in the Donbas. He seemed to believe his own propaganda that disgruntled Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine were Russians manqués and would rush to rebel against Kyiv, if only the charge were led by a few Russian commandos. Eastern Ukraine was, after all, the part of the country in which identity was most blurred; easterners paid little attention to differences between Ukrainians and Russians in everyday life, and most had cousins in both Russia and western Ukraine. In a way, the region was the ideal test of Putin’s construct of a unifying goal to fill the vacuum left after futurist communist ideology evaporated. The campaign was first presented as Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, but that was dropped once it became clear that Ukraine would not be a part of it. Thereafter it was repackaged as gathering in fellow ethnics left outside the “Russian world” by the Soviet collapse, and then as retaking the tsarist Novorossiya.

At first, the Russian-backed secessionists took quick control over roughly two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or provinces. Putin, however, overestimated the warrior zeal of the easterners and the usual gripes of any province about the meagre payouts it gets from central government. In the early days, the local people warmed to the promises of higher pensions made by the separatists. And grandmothers visibly enjoyed acting as civilian shields by surrounding local administration buildings that were occupied by separatists and preventing Ukrainian soldiers from reclaiming the offices. But as the novelty wore off and the hardship of war increased, Moscow and the secessionists it sponsored increasingly had to rely on a motley band of mercenaries and Donbas criminal gangs that did well in firefights only when they were assisted by Russian “volunteers” and armed with the heavy weapons the Russians were shuttling across the border.

In purely military terms, Putin probably could have escalated in the spring of 2014 from the kind of limited, disguised and therefore deniable warfare that the West calls “hybrid”, replacing the hooded “little green men” with regular Russian soldiers in marked uniforms in an all-out invasion of the Novorossiya oblasts. That was certainly the Russian president’s threat in massing 80,000 troops on the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine and exercising them on high alert.

As late as September 2014 Putin boasted to President Poroshenko that if he so desired, “Russian troops could be in Kyiv within two days – and also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest.” But he did not invade when Ukraine’s provisional government was still shaky – and still reeling under the Russian show of force.

Three reasons for Putin’s decision not to order an invasion in spring 2014 might be inferred. The first was a tactical reduction of his bellicosity at a time when the European Union was still debating financial sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. The second was the weakness of the novice Ukrainian government, which could foreseeably have collapsed and left Kyiv with a political vacuum the Russians could fill without firing a shot. The third was perhaps a premonition in the Russian army that it was being overstretched and that an occupation of its neighbour, given Ukraine’s strong military tradition, might turn into a quagmire of messy guerrilla warfare.

Putin’s military threats to Ukraine were counterproductive and stoked Ukrainian anger. In May 2014 a Pew survey found that 77 per cent of Ukrainians, including 70 per cent of those living in eastern Ukraine outside the Donbas war zone, thought that their country should remain united instead of breaking up. And in early July, even before the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 civilian jet by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from insurgent territory, Pew reported that 60 per cent of Ukrainians had a general negative view of Russia. It was a sharp reversal from 2011, when 84 per cent of Ukrainians had viewed Russia positively.

The Euromaidan spirit drew in ever more Ukrainians who had been politically passive. Volunteers flocked to enlist in the army, in the revived National Guard and in the private militias raised and paid for by Kolomoyskyi and other oligarchs. Civilian volunteers cooked and delivered food to recruits. Techies designed and built their own surveillance drones from scratch to observe border areas that Ukraine no longer controlled.

Ukrainian veterans who had once formed the backbone of the Soviet army’s rough equivalent of Western non-commissioned officers, together with local Afgantsy – veterans of the Soviet army’s doomed expedition in Afghanistan in the 1980s – gave the rookies accelerated basic training. Weapons factories in Ukraine that had once supplied the Soviet army managed to repair 20-year-old tanks and build new ones even as the battles raged. And morale was vastly better on the side of Ukrainian defenders against a threat to their very existence than it was among opportunistic rebel mercenaries and criminal gangs. By mid-August 2014, Ukrainian troops had recaptured most of the rebel territory and reduced the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to two small pockets.

That was too much for Putin. At the end of August, he signalled his red line in the sand: he would not let his proxies be defeated. He sent elite airborne troops into the Donbas to mount a counteroffensive alongside separatist/Russian ground forces armed with Russian heavy weapons. Within days, they broke the Ukrainian siege and restored the secessionists’ control of about half of the territory that the DPR and LPR had ruled at their height.

President Poroshenko understood the message and immediately proposed a truce, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, brokered the Minsk ceasefire of 5 September. The shaky agreement at least reduced the scale of violence for five months, until the separatist/Russian forces made a fresh effort to break through strengthened Ukrainian lines in January and February of 2015 – and failed. A further shaky “Minsk-2” truce followed. But on 1 September 2015 the heavy guns abruptly fell silent and, for the most part, remained silent. For the first time in a year, overjoyed babushkas in the separatist Donbas enclave could walk across the front lines to reach Ukrainian-held towns seven kilometres away and buy salo (pork rind), butter and eggs at far cheaper prices. They returned to tell journalists that their greatest wish was simply for the fighting to stop.

***

At the end of September Putin opened a front in Syria, and reportedly redeployed some special forces from Ukraine to the new battlefield. Ukraine dropped off Russian TV bulletins. The war there had
caused 8,000 deaths and forced 2.4 million people from their homes. It was clear that Putin was belatedly acknowledging that the war also had strategic costs for Russia.

He had first lost all of Ukraine, with the exception of Crimea, to the Euromaidan that he despised. He had failed to salvage Novorossiya for Russia. He had failed, too, to maintain the shelled and charred Donbas region in any form he wanted to annex or subsidise – and keeping it as a zone of frozen conflict for future mischief-making wasn’t much of a consolation prize. He had provoked the West into resuscitating Nato and imposing sanctions that damaged the Russian economy. He had alarmed Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into distancing themselves somewhat from Moscow.

Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine raised the spectre of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that killed 15,000 Soviet soldiers in the 1980s and gave birth to the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which tries to ferret out facts about their dead sons. Last May, after many inquiries by the committee about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Duma passed legislation banning the spread of information about Russian casualties across the border. In this context, it seemed unlikely that Putin would risk incurring a rise in Russian deaths by resuming heavy fighting in Ukraine.

This appraisal, however, takes the pressure off the Ukrainian oligarchs to grow beyond the robber-baron stage and become patriotic philanthropists. On the present evidence, they no longer sense much urgency with regard to implementing reform legislation, installing the rule of law, building democratic institutions and rooting out kleptocracy as opposed to exploiting it.

Putin has surely lost Ukraine. The Ukrainian oligarchs have not yet surely lost their own country. But how ironic it will be if he manages to melt their urgency into complacency by easing the pressure on Ukraine, thus paving the way for that final loss of the Revolution of Dignity. It would give the last laugh to Georgy Arbatov, the Kremlin’s leading Americanist who prophesied as the Cold War ended: “We are going to do to you the worst thing we possibly could – we are going to take your enemy away.”

Elizabeth Pond is based in Berlin and is the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

Mike Lombardo via @moreMiLo
Show Hide image

“I was almost brainwashed by him”: How male YouTubers get away with preying on young fans

A multitude of YouTube stars have been accused of taking advantage of young fans, but little is being done to tackle the problem.

In June, a 24-year-old YouTuber named Austin Jones was charged with two counts of producing images of child abuse. Court documents allege that the internet personality – who has more than half a million subscribers to his YouTube channel – solicited explicit videos from two of his young female fans. According to the criminal complaint, Jones asked one of the teenage girls – known only as Victim B – to dance for him, and said: “Bounce again and smile at the camera while you bounce. And while you bounce, say ‘I’m only 14’ 3 times throughout the video.” Jones has been released on bail and is awaiting trial. Jones’ attorney Gerardo Solon Gutierrez points out that the singer is “innocent until proven guilty”.

A few weeks later, a YouTuber known as Durte Dom was accused of filming a 15-year-old girl from behind while she danced at a party, without her consent. “He filmed my ass dancing,” the girl wrote anonymously on Twitter. Dom responded to the allegations via the social network, writing: “the party was 18+, the girl snuck in. don't fool yourself.” He says he will now “start having people sign release forms” before he films them.

These allegations are not isolated. In 2014, a Tumblr user called Olga accused the YouTuber Tom Milsom of coercing her into sexual activities when she was 15 and he was 21. Milsom did not comment publicly on the accusations and was never charged. Only a month earlier, a YouTube musician, Mike Lombardo, was jailed for five years on child pornography charges after soliciting explicit photographs and videos from 11 of his underage fans. 

These events set off a series of other allegations. Vlogger Alex Day admitted to having “manipulative relationships with women” after 14 women and teenage girls accused him of manipulation and abuse. One anonymous 15-year-old wrote on Tumblr that Day had sex with her knowing she was underage and “didn’t listen to me when I asked to stop”. Day denied any sexual relations with underage girls, and none of his alleged victims pressed charges. Another YouTuber, Ed Blann, admitted in a now-deleted Tumblr post that he “manipulated” an of-age fan into sex even after he was “repeatedly told to stop”. Like Day, Blann never faced any charges, but, also like Day, he apologised for his actions.  

 In September 2014, a 19-year-old woman accused the YouTube prankster Sam Pepper of raping her, and another woman filed a police report accusing him of rape. Pepper denied the accusations, was never arrested and charges were never filed. He did, however, apologise for YouTube pranks that included pinching women’s behinds while wearing a fake hand.

A Tumblr post set up to track emotional and sexual abuse in the YouTube community to date features allegations against 43 YouTubers.

***

Social media revolutionised the concept of celebrity – and celebrity-fan interactions. YouTubers are both incredibly adored and incredibly accessible. Products they design sell out overnight and their live events fill arenas. At the same time, fans are often just a few clicks away from engaging in private, one-on-one conversations with their heroes.

“I feel like I was kind of blinded to the whole situation, like I was almost brainwashed by him,” says Ashley LaPrade, a 16-year-old who claims that when she was 15, Austin Jones coerced her into creating sexualised videos on the messaging app Kik. She posted screenshots of their conversations on social media after the news of Jones’s arrest broke.

“It was kind of casual at first and he asked me to model his merchandise for him... so I did. I took a couple pictures and I’m a gymnast so I was trying to like impress him and I did like splits and stuff,” she says. She alleges that Jones asked her to film herself from behind while bending down or dancing. “I didn't want to upset him and make him not like me,” she says.

LaPrade explains that as a young 15-year-old fan she “looked up” to Jones and was initially excited by his interest in her. After she began to feel uncomfortable with his requests, they stopped talking, but she continued to listen to his music and go to his concerts. She says that she only realised the severity of his actions after his arrest.

Many young fans like Ashley are initially unable to comprehend that anything wrong – legally or morally – has happened to them. Neesey Pathan is a 20-year-old student and YouTuber who claims she was sexually harassed by Sam Pepper when she was 15. In 2014, she posted a YouTube video of her allegations, showing screenshots of alleged conversations with Pepper in which he asks her to “do a naked a dance” and show him her cleavage.

“As a young naïve 15-year old girl, I just wanted to keep talking to him because I was a huge fan,” Neesey tells me. “When he started to get inappropriate with me, at the time that made me feel uncomfortable but I didn’t understand how serious that was, because of how young I was.

“I wanted him to stop being inappropriate with me but I didn't want him to stop speaking to me.”

***

Since the concept of celebrity was invented, nefarious individuals have used their fame to manipulate and take sexual advantage of young fans. In the 1970s, Lori Mattix was a “baby groupie” to musicians – alleging in a Thrillist article that she lost her virginity to David Bowie aged just 14. When the guitarist Ted Nugent couldn’t legally marry 17-year-old Pele Massa, he became her guardian instead. Anna Garcia met Prince aged 15 and began a relationship with him aged 17. “I guess it’s kind of a dream to a young girl of 17,” she said in the Nineties. “You can be influenced very easily and stuff like that because he’s 12-13 years older than me.”

It now seems as though a slew of YouTubers have taken advantage of this imbalanced fan-creator relationship, and have deliberately exploited the naivety of their young fans. Ashley and Neesey both claim they were emotionally manipulated.

“I think I put him on this pedestal, which put him in a position to very easily manipulate me and get what he wanted,” says Neesey. “I was just so excited to get to speak to someone who I had looked up to for a long time.”

Ashley claims that when she wouldn’t film increasingly explicit videos for Jones, he treated her coldly. “He went on about how he was in a bad mood now and he didn’t want to talk any more,” she says. “If I did something wrong to him, like if I didn’t blow a kiss or something, then he would make me redo [the video].”

In 2015, Jones was first accused of asking his underage fans to film themselves twerking. In a video entitled “Setting The Record Straight”, he admitted to asking for the twerking videos and said he became suicidal after this news became public. “I’m a pretty insecure person... I began researching different suicide methods. I started planning my suicide. It’s something I was very, very serious about,” he says in the video. 

“A lot of times when we were talking he was talking about how he was going to therapy so I kind of felt bad for him and that’s why I didn't really say anything [to the authorities],” says Ashley.

The American National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines on its website that threatening suicide can be a form of emotional abuse. “If your partner regularly threatens suicide, particularly whenever you’re not doing something he or she wants you to do, or when you’re trying to leave the relationship... this is a form of emotional abuse.”

According to Neesey’s screenshots, Pepper flippantly mentioned he was “suicidal” when she refused to show him her breasts. In Olga’s blogpost about Tom Milsom, she alleges: “he’d like sob and cut himself in front of me he threatened weird suicidal shit a lot”.

“Obviously, if someone is saying to you that they're suicidal, you want to help them, because obviously they don't mean it but as a young person you think they do,” explains Neesey. “And you don't want to be held responsible for them hurting themselves and you maybe care about this person because you’ve been watching them for so long. So you’re manipulated into carrying on contact with them because if you don’t, what will happen...” 

***

To date, Lombardo is the only YouTuber who has ever been jailed for sexually abusing his fans. There are a multitude of reasons for this. Some victims are too afraid to press charges, fearing backlash from a YouTuber’s fandom. Many victims are unable to see the severity of their abuse until they are older. More still are manipulated into silence. Parents can’t comprehend YouTube stardom, and fail to understand what is happening in their children’s lives. Some victims simply don’t know which authorities to turn to.

“I'm kind of steaming about this whole issue,” says Michelle LaPrade, Ashley’s mother. “I can’t even look at a picture of the guy. It makes me want to punch him.”

At the time, Ashley never told her mother about Jones’s behaviour, but Michelle overheard conversations about it between her daughter and her friends. “I feel like a bad mother. I never even really investigated it. Because I know girls and their drama and you know, [they] overreact sometimes.”

After Jones’s arrest, Michelle wanted to report his interactions with Ashley to the authorities, but she found her local police department unhelpful. “I don't know who to turn to,” she says.

Many more victims are unaware that a crime has even occurred. “When I was 15 I didn't see how problematic it was,” says Neesey. “I knew it was a bit strange, and I did feel uncomfortable, but I didn't realise that he was actually sort of committing a crime in terms of asking a minor, as an adult, to do these things...

“It wouldn't even have crossed my mind to go to the police.”

While the UK has the large-scale Operation Yewtree into sexual abuse by celebrities, there is no equivalent for YouTube. Despite the multitude of allegations spanning half a decade, there is no single helpline or dedicated investigation into YouTube abuse. When questioned on this, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“We cannot allow social media platforms to be looked upon as a safe space for predators to target our children and share indecent images. It is vital that communication service providers have easily identifiable reporting systems for people to flag inappropriate or illegal content – and that they are clear about what is and isn’t allowed on their sites.”

A YouTube spokesperson said: “We have clear policies against harassment and we enforce these policies by removing both flagged content and comments that break our rules as well as terminating the accounts of repeat offenders.”

Sam Pepper is still on YouTube, where his channel has over two million subscribers. Alex Day returned to YouTube in December 2015, and now has over 80,000 subscribers. Austin Jones’s YouTube channel remains live, though he is not allowed to use social media before his trial.

***

“I feel like it is really hard to be taken seriously,” says Ashley. On social media, people are prone to victim-blaming Ashley and other alleged victims, saying that they should have stopped replying to the YouTubers harassing them. “Yeah, we did send stuff back but it was... we were being pressured into it and we didn't want to upset him or anything like that,” Ashley says. Her mother tells me she is glad Ashley “took the high ground” in not sending overtly sexual videos to Jones.

Unsure which authorities to speak to, many victims turn to social media to discuss their abuse. Accusations play out on Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube itself. Ashley tweeted screenshots of her interactions with Jones, while Neesey created two videos about her conversations with Pepper. Although this is an effective, and unprecedented, way for victims to get their voices heard, many online are distrustful of complaints that didn’t go through the authorities. Many more leave misogynistic and hateful comments.

“People will just be absolutely horrible to you and call you demeaning things... I got called a flirt, I got told it was all my fault because I continued speaking to him...” says Neesey, of the reaction to her videos. “I think that's a lot of the reason why people sometimes don’t come forward, because they don't want to go through all that stress again. They’ve already dealt with the situation; why would they want to deal with the stress of people being horrible to them about it?”

Some commenters criticise Neesey and other victims who have made YouTube videos and claim they were doing so for attention. “No one in their right mind would do it for attention because the attention you get is negative,” Neesey says. “I honestly don’t believe that someone would sit down and accuse someone of doing something if they didn’t mean it. So I really think it should be taken seriously.”

Whether it makes sense to those outside of the community or not, many victims' first recourse is social media, not the police or authorities. The accusations about Durte Dom – the YouTuber who allegedly filmed a 15-year-old dancing – were publicised by another YouTuber, Elijah Daniel, on his Twitter page.

Damon Fizzy is a YouTuber who called out Austin Jones after the initial accusations in 2015, and continues to do so on Twitter now. Although he agreed to speak with me, he was unable to find time to do so over a series of weeks.

For many YouTubers and their victims, social media is more important that the traditional media. Perhaps this makes sense – when the Mail Online covered the arrest of Lombardo, the YouTuber who solicited child abuse images from 11 underage fans, they added inverted commas around the word “star” in their headline. If the media and the authorities can’t take YouTube seriously, how seriously will they take accusations of YouTuber abuse?

***

In the past, YouTubers have often been good at self-policing. Hank and John Green are American brothers who run the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, which has over three million subscribers. They own a record label, DFTBA, and run the annual YouTube convention VidCon. Lombardo and Day were DFTBA artists, and were dropped from the label after the accusations emerged. The Green brothers also banned Pepper from VidCon.

After the storm of accusations in 2014, an enormous number of popular YouTubers made videos in response. Hank Green explained consent to his audience, while the comedy YouTuber TomSka created a guide to YouTube gatherings. The popular YouTube duo Jack and Dean even made a music video about consent. The community came together to exile those who weren’t being punished in other ways. The subscriber numbers on the accused’s channels dropped dramatically.

Yet within a few months, many disgraced YouTubers can return to the platform to harness a new generation of fans, many of whom might not be aware of the accusations.

“YouTube still allows them to create content and make money off it, and that to me is just communicating that the behaviour is just not that bad. It’s sort of equivalent to a slap on the wrist and it doesn't convey the extremity of the situation of what they’ve done,” says Neesey. “I think they should be completely ostracised from the community, and have their status stripped from them, and I think YouTube should support that. Because they’re criminals.”

On Twitter, YouTuber Damon Fizzy claims he received backlash from Jones’s fans when trying to speak out years ago. “It’s crazy the backlash I received versus now. I was literally treated worse than the person who uses his underage fans for sexual gain,” he wrote.

And it’s true that YouTubers’ leagues of adoring fans can make it difficult to speak out about abuse. It is hard for many adults to understand how consuming being a young fan can be, particularly when manipulation is involved. When I ask both Ashley and Neesey what they would say to young female fans who start talking to YouTubers, they both say this is fine. Neesey warns that when a youngster becomes uncomfortable, they should end communication, but both she and Ashley feel that safe, normal fan-creator interaction is fine, indeed desirable.  

Sapphire Putt is a 20-year-old who claims a YouTuber coerced her into filming videos of herself dancing when she was 16. When I ask if she thinks it would be OK for the YouTuber to return to YouTube, she says she would be “cautious” but “wouldn’t throw the possibility of maybe giving him a chance again”.

“If he actually shows that he’s learned, you know, I would give it a chance and if he would mess it up again then that’s it, you know.”

When I ask Ashley what she would say to people who remain fans of Austin Jones she says: “I’d say that I probably understand... but they also need to understand that what he’s doing isn’t right and no one should be treated the way he is treating people.”

***

The NSPCC is currently calling for an independent regulator to scrutinise internet companies and fine them if they fail to keep children safe.

“We want the government to draw up a list of minimum standards that internet companies must observe to protect children, and children should be automatically offered safer accounts that protect them from grooming and harmful content,” an NSPCC spokesperson says.

“We know from our Childline service that online sexual exploitation is increasing so it’s vital that more is done to protect young people from abusers who use social media to target and manipulate them.”

For now, Ashley is simply glad things didn’t go further. “It's scary not knowing what could've happened, knowing that I was brainwashed like to believe it was OK, and I'm just happy he's not able to message other girls at this point,” she says.

Neesey hopes that schools will get better at teaching consent. “As a young person, I knew I felt a bit uncomfortable but I just thought that I was being dramatic... so I think people need to be educated, for sure.”  She says education needs to be improved not just in schools, but in the media.

“Unfortunately, people are sort of used to it now, after quite a few YouTubers, so it’s sort of like, ‘Oh another one.' People aren’t talking about it as much – not that it’s old news, but it’s not as shocking. People aren’t giving it as much attention as it needs.”

The NSPCC advises that if a child is worried about an online situation they should talk to a trusted adult or contact Childline on 0800 1111. Parents can find out more about talking to their child about staying safe online by searching Share Aware or visiting www.nspcc.org.uk

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

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war