For eight days in January 2019, Eugenia Cooney disappeared from the internet. A 24-year-old American with more than 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, Cooney has shared her life online since 2011. Like many famous twentysomething YouTubers, her videos consist of her trying on clothes, showing off shoes and doing make-up tutorials. Unlike other YouTubers, however, her followers constantly warn her that she is going to die.
When Cooney stopped posting suddenly in January, many fans feared she was dead. People contacted her local police department in Connecticut. Then, on 10 February, she returned to the internet and tweeted: “Hi guys! I appreciate the concern. I’m taking a break from social media and voluntarily working on this with my doctor privately. Please respect that.”
Just what “this” is remains unclear. For as long as Cooney has been popular online, fans have speculated that she suffers from an eating disorder. She is by far the thinnest person I have ever seen. In her most recent video, posted days after her disappearance, the YouTuber is skeletal. Her upper arms are the size of an average woman’s wrists.
It is possible Cooney does not suffer from an eating disorder – she has never spoken about the subject publicly and avoids talking about her weight online. In 2016, she said she is “just kind of naturally like that… there isn’t really a reason”. Regardless, the internet at large believes she is sick. In October 2016, a petition entitled “Temporarily Ban Eugenia Cooney off of YouTube” went viral, receiving 18,000 signatures. “Eugenia Cooney has a serious medical condition and needs to seek help,” it read. “She has been influencing her viewers by her serious underweight condition.” (The petition was deleted by Change.org for violating community guidelines, and Eugenia’s channel – which does not violate any YouTube rules – remained live.)
Cooney does not actively promote or glorify eating disorders with her words. It is also important to note that social media cannot give someone anorexia (it is a complex disorder with biological, psychological and environmental causes). Yet over the years, hundreds of young viewers have claimed to have been negatively affected by watching Cooney’s channel.
“I wanted to be her,” says 17-year-old Nina, a high school student from Washington state. Nina first watched Cooney’s videos aged 14 and was diagnosed with purging disorder last year. “I started to see her getting thinner and thinner and my inspiration was, ‘If Eugenia is able to get that thin, so can I.’”
Two days before Cooney tweeted about seeing a doctor, Instagram banned graphic depictions of self-harm on the site. The decision was made after the father of Molly Russell, a 14 year old who died by suicide in 2017, publicly blamed Instagram for his daughter’s death. Ian Russell said that his daughter would check the photo-sharing site for images of self-harm and suicide, and Instagram’s algorithm fed her increasingly disturbing content.
Instagram’s decision to ban graphic self-harm pictures has been praised. Yet Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at the eating disorder charity Beat, says the site could do more about pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia content. “Social media platforms should do more to direct affected users to sources of support,” he says. “People will not develop an eating disorder by being exposed to images that glamorise eating disorders, but research shows that such content helps perpetuate the illnesses for people who are already suffering.”
It would be difficult for YouTube to act in the strange case of Eugenia Cooney. Because her medical history is unknown and because she has never spoken about eating disorders, it would arguably be discriminatory for the site to ban her because of her extreme appearance. But the website could direct frequent viewers to eating disorder charities and helplines; anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
When social media giants refuse to act, the internet takes things into its own hands. The world’s most popular YouTuber, Felix Kjellberg – a Swede who has 86 million subscribers on his channel PewDiePie – urged his fans to send support to Eugenia Cooney on 4 February. But this type of action has its own problems. While well-intentioned, the attention Cooney receives can send the message that anorexia is somehow glamorous and even thrilling. “If someone with a big audience suffers from an eating disorder, they have a lot of people pity them,” says Nina, the teenage high school student. “No one deserves to be pitied but I wanted someone to care for me. I knew that would never happen unless I got a big audience.”
Whether well-meaning or not, concern for Eugenia Cooney is a thriving cottage industry on YouTube. “Eugenia Cooney Is Literally Documenting Her Own Death On YouTube,” reads one video title, with the poster noting that he has “turned off monitization [sic] from this video” because he does not want to profit from her plight. Others have not. Dozens of verified channels have covered the controversy, with headlines such as “A message to Eugenia Cooney” and “How Eugenia Cooney Will Look After Recovery”.
On television, someone with Cooney’s appearance might raise just the same concerns among viewers: but that person would surely be supported by the production company and broadcaster, and audiences could register complaints via Ofcom. On YouTube, even the biggest stars seem alone. And so, thousands of viewers are left waiting for the next installment of the Eugenia Cooney story, whether it brings her recovery – or her death.
This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State