On 3 October 2012, ITV broadcast a documentary alleging that Sir Jimmy Savile had sexually abused children for decades at the height of his fame. Within a week, the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Yewtree, a joint endeavour with the NSPCC, to investigate the allegations. As Britain fell into a frenzy over the claims, some 3,000 miles away in New Jersey, the YouTuber Michael Lombardo sat in a prison cell in the Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix. Eight months earlier, he had pleaded guilty to child pornography charges after soliciting naked photographs from six of his underage fans.
There was no mention of Lombardo in the mainstream media. But two years later, in March 2014, a storm of sexual abuse allegations hit the YouTube community, which is dominated by a few superstar vloggers with hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of fans. The most prominent case involved the YouTube musician Alex Day, who was accused by 14 individuals of sexual manipulation and abuse. One anonymous girl alleged Day had sex with her knowing she was 15, and “didn’t listen to me when I asked to stop”. Day denied any sexual relations with underage girls, but admitted to having “manipulative relationships with women” in a Tumblr post. None of his alleged victims pressed charges.
What followed was a torrent of blog posts and videos accusing a handful of male YouTubers of sexual and emotional abuse. As Operation Yewtree secured the conviction of Max Clifford and prepared for the trial of Rolf Harris, a single Tumblr user named Johanna was collecting links to collate all the allegations of YouTube abuse in a single place.
Next came the case of Sam Pepper. In October 2014 an 18-year-old woman told Buzzfeed she had reported the YouTube prankster for rape. Other women then spoke out, one of whom claimed Pepper solicited nude photographs of her when she was just 15. The allegations against Pepper were the most prominent of all the accusations against YouTubers, with news stories featured on BBC Newsbeat, MTV and Metro. Via his legal team, Pepper denied “any and all accusations”. None of his alleged victims pressed charges and to this day, he continues to make YouTube videos.
Two years later, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has just warned YouTubers over “blurred boundaries” with fans. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live in an exclusive report last night, NSPCC spokesperson Emily Cherry said YouTubers have a “responsibility” to their young audience, adding that “parents and children must really understand the dangers”.
“Young people feel that these are people they can look up to, they can go to for advice and they can create a frienship with – and that’s where we the NSPCC will have some concerns,” she said.
“It’s not something we shied away from,” an NSPCC spokesperson told the New Statesman when asked why the charity is issuing this statement now. “We weren’t asked [in 2014]. We were asked by the BBC because they were making this report.”
The BBC report wasn’t prompted by a specific case. “We decided to do the report because we felt this was, until now, an under-reported issue,” says Calum Macdonald, a broadcast journalist at BBC Radio 5 live. “YouTubers are the new generation of celebrities. And they’re more accessible than ‘traditional’ celebrities would have been – it’s so easy to connect online. As the NSPCC told us, this can lead to confusion for vloggers and young people about where appropriate boundaries should be.”
Although the NSPCC has never specifically campaigned about YouTubers, they do raise awareness of online safety issues. “We’ve commented generally on the need for young people to be aware of who they’re talking to online,” their spokesperson says. As a society, we’ve spent years warning children about the dangers of speaking to strangers online. The problem is, YouTubers aren’t strangers. To many children, they’re their best friends.
This is called a “parasocial relationship”. It’s a one-sided relationship where a person is emotionally involved with another who is oblivious of their existence, and it has always been incredibly common between celebrities and fans. But now, for the first time, some celebrities are just a few clicks away. Thanks to the YouTube culture of holding meet-and-greets with fans, children and teenagers are easily able to access people they idolise. If the YouTuber in question decides to take advantage of this, it is hard for young fans to understand that there is an unequal power relationship involved.
“You end up developing a one-way friendship and suddenly it’s a two-way friendship,” said Ania Magliano-Wright, who spoke to the BBC about her allegations that YouTuber VeeOneEye (real name Jason Viohni) plied her with alcohol and coerced her into sex when she was 15 and he was 21. “I didn’t want to seem uncool,” she said. Viohni later apologised in a video, saying: “I thought it’d be fun to get some drinks because we didn’t have much in common and it was awkward… Most people make mistakes when they’re growing up, with sex and alcohol.” Magliano-Wright went to the police with her allegations but decided not to press charges.
If you listen to Radio 5’s presenter Stephen Nolan question Magliano-Wright about her allegations, it becomes clear why so many fans found it difficult to go to the authorities with claims about exploitation suffered at the hands of YouTubers. “I’m obviously not judging you,” Nolan says, after asking Magliano-Wright a series of questions including: “Did no alarm bell ring?”,“Were you not worried at that stage?”,“Why didn’t you stop?”, and “Were you a grown-up 15-year-old?”.
The media has been able to report the allegations against Day and Viohni because each wrote blog posts and created videos acknowledging the accusations. “It wasn’t an equal situation because they had an idea of me that I wasn’t considering – and that was totally my fault,” Day said in the BBC report last night. It is much harder – legally – to shed light on other cases. Despite the 164 allegations of emotional and sexual abuse by 43 YouTubers that Johanna has collated, to date, Lombardo – who is still serving his sentence for receipt of child pornography – is the only one who has been charged.
Just because there were no legal repercussions, however, does not mean that there were no consequences. Alex Day was quickly shunned by other vloggers – including his former best friend Charlie McDonnell, who was the first UK YouTuber to reach one million subscribers – and lost around 300,000 subscribers in total after the allegations were made public. His music was dropped from DFTBA Records, the same YouTuber-owned label that represented Lombardo. His videos, which used to get hundreds of thousands of views, are now watched by just a couple of thousand people.
“The majority of the YouTube community have been united in agreement that alleged abusers will not be welcomed or tolerated,” says Lex Croucher, a 24-year-old YouTuber who has 125,000 subscribers on her channel, TyrannosaurusLexxx. After the 2014 allegations against Day she – and a variety of other prominent YouTubers including SprinkleofGlitter and the Vlogbrothers – posted a video warning fans to be careful about relationships with YouTubers. Pepper, and a handful of others who have been accused, have also been banned from VidCon, the annual online video conference where creators meet with fans. Until now, the main people tackling YouTube abuse have been YouTubers themselves.
“I personally want more legal action and more charity support,” says Croucher. “The YouTube community can’t police itself because these are accusations of horrific sexual abuse. I always welcome education and advice about online relationships and I hope that [the NSPCC’s] statements might help others experiencing or at risk of abuse – but they’re not enough to combat this problem.”
Croucher believes more education is crucial. “If you teach children – and all people – exactly what consent is and about abusive, manipulative relationships, they’re equipped to understand that when people emotionally or physically abuse them they can speak out and can report them,” she says. “We also need more mental health support for those struggling with abuse, and for the police to be educated about online culture and to always take allegations of abuse seriously.”
But there is another big barrier to children speaking out against YouTubers, and that is the power of the YouTube fandom itself. Croucher notes that there are still fans who support Day, and Sam Pepper still has over two million subscribers. It is incredibly difficult for a young fan to speak out and risk a torrent of online abuse. Because of this, Croucher is “pretty furious” about the BBC’s decision to interview Alex Day.
“To see the BBC giving him a platform to defend abuse and try to push focus onto others is incredibly disappointing,” she says. On the show, Day said that he wasn’t aware being a YouTuber put him in a position of power. “I never felt like I was taking advantage of people at the time – but if people say I did then I did,” he said.
It was not until Jimmy Savile’s death that his 300 victims felt comfortable to come forward with their stories of abuse. Britain has spent the last four years and £7m investigating these historic allegations of assault. If YouTubers were mainstream celebrities, would more be done? With tens of millions of subscribers between them, how much more mainstream can they be before we pay attention?
“I think we’ll probably take a look at our advice and maybe think about what we can add there, what we can tweak,” says the NSPCC spokesperson when I ask them about the future. “I’m not sure exactly what we’ll do at the minute but we’re always updating our advice for children and young people as things change.”