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8 February 2023

The tasteless, dangerous rise of charity porn content

YouTubers such as MrBeast are giving away millions in exploitative videos that spread the hollow gospel of “effective altruism”.

By Sarah Manavis

For all the talk about lifestyle bloggers, video podcast and conspiracy theories, there is one inescapable YouTube video trend that sums up our dystopian cultural moment. It might be described as “charity porn”. This content genre – which reliably brings in tens of millions of views – has become unavoidable on the platform and a mainstay of some of its most popular creators. Most of these videos follow a certain format: a (typically male) YouTuber will find someone having a hard time in society – be it a homeless person, someone with a disability, or a single parent struggling financially – and construct a “surprise” or “challenge” in order to help them. This can range from giving a random person a large amount of money to giving away hundreds of hastily built homes.

The star at the centre of such content is the benevolent millionaire YouTuber, so generously redistributing their wealth. These videos are structured like reality TV episodes, and the leading role is not the recipient of the gift, but the giver. Of these charity-porn stars, one stands out above the rest: Jimmy Donaldson, better known by his moniker MrBeast. For more than ten years, he has been posting tasteless, patronising videos such as “Giving $100,000 to a Homeless Person” (30 million views), “I Gave My 100,000,000th Subscriber an Island” (110 million views), and “Giving $1,000,000 of Food to People in Need” (42 million views). His YouTube channel has now amassed 132 million subscribers. Though he had attracted some press attention in the years after his rise to fame in 2017, he wasn’t covered much in the mainstream media – until the end of January, when he released a video in which he paid for a thousand blind people to have sight-restoring surgery.

Why this particular video caused more offence than any of his others is unclear – but the outrage has been widespread, with many arguing that the video is a cynical PR move, capitalising on the misfortunes of others in a voyeuristic, self-serving manner. But for every critic, there are just as many people who see no issue with this approach – who believe this type of “charity” is not only useful, but the ideal approach to solving society’s problems. This video – and others like it – have normalised a widespread belief in the false promise of effective altruism.

Though rarely explicitly stated as such, the tenets of “effective altruism” are at the heart of all these videos. It is a philosophy and movement that makes a moral argument in favour of earning obscene amounts of money in order to donate more of it – and, crucially, to give it away more “strategically”, so that, in theory (a qualifier which does a lot of heavy lifting among disciples), your money helps the maximum number of people possible. One of the movement’s founders, William MacAskill, once said that it would be worth letting a child die in a burning building in order to save a Picasso painting, because you could eventually sell the painting and donate the money to help more than one child. Another well-known proponent of this philosophy is Sam Bankman-Fried, the recently disgraced founder of cryptocurrency company FTX, who said he was practising effective altruism through his business, with plans to donate “billions” a year. Jimmy Donaldson defended his sight-restoring video along similar lines. “I’ll use my money to help people and I promise to give away all my money before I die,” he said on Twitter. “Every single penny.”

It is an idea that may have instinctive appeal for us – but its limits are obvious. Short-term bursts of cash offering individual fixes to societal problems will not make as much of an impact as long-term investments. As with most forms of “philanthropy”, these donations are usually only “strategic” in how they benefit the reputation of the donor, rather than as a way of revolutionising our approaches to poverty or other social crises. Increasing access to social welfare or affordable healthcare, paid for by taxing the rich, will always improve more lives than gifting life-changing surgery to a thousand people. But it serves effective altruists’ cause to argue that no government could be quite as effective as they are – it allows them to exert more control over their wealth.

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On YouTube, these tired, self-interested arguments are being repackaged as snackable, short-form entertainment – a dangerously effective vehicle. Instead of a dry economics lecture, these flashy and loud videos replace ideological argument with an appeal to the emotions. Many viewers will simply be moved when they see ordinary people react to such large donations. Watching Donaldson’s sight-restoring video, you cannot deny the impact his donation has had on these individuals. But in reality, we are witnessing a millionaire exploit someone’s suffering for a profit.

The impact of these charity-porn figures on their often extremely young audiences should not be understated. Not only does YouTube remain Gen Z’s most popular platform (even with the rise of TikTok), but MrBeast has specifically been polled as one of the younger generation’s favourite influencers, beating wildly popular celebrities such as Zendaya and Kylie Jenner, the most followed woman on Instagram. While a debate in the mainstream media about effective altruism’s value has peaked since the collapse of Bankman-Fried’s FTX, this discussion has failed to appreciate that an entire generation is being spoon-fed its flawed appeal, via YouTube’s most popular entertainers.

Jimmy Donaldson’s sight-restoration video vividly demonstrates why effective altruism can almost always be viewed as a PR exercise. This one-off donation can’t solve the problem of why the American healthcare system made an available, life-changing surgery an impossibility for these 1,000 people – nor will it help other blind people in the future access the surgery they need. This approach doesn’t solve that problem; it only masks its symptoms, making egomaniacal millionaires richer, and appear more heroic, as a result. He may have made a thousand people feel like they’d won the lottery – but nobody here wins bigger than MrBeast.

[See also: Could America’s Gen Z voters save the world?]

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