KSI vs Logan Paul: how two YouTubers sold violence, sex, and hatred to children

The two men aren’t solely to blame; YouTube is the emperor profiting from the gladiators’ fight.

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As a small streak of blood begins to run from Logan Paul’s nose towards his top lip, I wonder if the YouTuber who famously filmed and uploaded a video of a corpse can afford any more blows to the head. It’s Saturday night at Manchester Arena and nearly 20,000 fans have come to watch internet celebrities KSI (19 million subscribers) and Logan Paul (18 million subscribers) fight.

The American star Paul, aged 23, made international news after filming an apparent suicide victim in January and sharing the footage with his young fans (following a seemingly sincere apology, he returned to form in February by broadcasting himself tasering dead rats). KSI, a 25-year-old from Watford whose real name is Olajide William Olatunji, challenged Paul to an amateur boxing match shortly after the incident, and for six months, anticipation has been building.

It’s finally 25 August, and while the rest of Manchester celebrates love for all with its annual LGBT+ Pride celebration, young boys and girls gather in the arena to celebrate the all-consuming power of beef.

“I want [Logan] to beat him because he was skitting Logan Paul’s girlfriend,” says nine-year-old Poppy in her Liverpudlian accent, referring to the time KSI mocked Paul by saying he couldn’t sexually satisfy his partner, the 26-year-old actress Chloe Bennet. In reality the feud is most likely orchestrated – but not in the fans’ hearts.

When I ask Poppy what she likes about the Paul brothers (Logan’s brother Jake is fighting the undercard against KSI’s brother Deji – both are aged 21 and also YouTubers) she exclaims, “Every single thing” and then – for emphasis – “Like every
single thing.” The fans in the arena do appear to be split down gender and age lines. While the air smells strongly of Lynx around the teenage boys who have donned suits to support KSI, small girls have drawn “I ♥ JP” on their cheeks for Jake.

“I don’t even know what it means. I just wait till the end when they put their arm up,” Poppy says of boxing. Introducing such young fans to violence seems troubling (particularly when, before the match begins, grime artist Bugzy Malone takes to the ring to sing about “that bitch”).

On the plus side, it’s clear the match has brought children together, with many online friends meeting in real life for the first time. Owen, aged eight, has come to support KSI (“He’s just funny and a really nice guy”) and his mum enthuses that her son now wants to take up the sport. “It’s taught him to want to exercise,” she says. Perhaps less encouragingly, another child boxes his dad in the queue for a chicken burger.

So if the beef was orchestrated – and children like Owen taking up boxing is an unforeseen benefit – then what was the fight really about? After his victory, Jake Paul instructs the arena that he has just launched a new clothing line and fans should rush to its website to buy one of 500 limited edition shirts. Logan Paul later thanks KSI with the words, “You saved my career.”

It’s easy to see how such stunts are profitable – YouTubers’ fans are dedicated and intense. At 5pm, phones don’t move from shoulder height at the gates behind the arena, where spectators are waiting to film the crucial moment when a black car with tinted windows rolls past for three seconds. “It’s KSI!” one exclaims (there’s no evidence that it is). Another waves a piece of cardboard with “I love you Logan” written in blue highlighter. A weary steward in a hi-vis jacket reminds everyone to stay off the road.

While it’s easy to sneer at “social media celebrities”, it’s time to admit that they no longer require the sub-category. KSI and Logan Paul are just celebrities, in their purest form, and offline events such as this now prove it. For me, this becomes apparent when my friend tells me, while looking through my photos after the match, that I was sat next to EastEnders actor Jake Wood. Who? At the time, I was more concerned that I was sat in front of Zoella’s boyfriend, Alfie Deyes.

With celebrity, however, comes scrutiny, and there is much that is worrying about this event. I think of Poppy as blood pours down Jake Paul’s face, and had he not won, I would have almost certainly seen crying young fans. Homophobic and toxic insults are thrown around in diss tracks (Paul sings that KSI has “dick up in ya ear”, while KSI raps that he would “beat the manhood out the bitch”). This has rubbed off on fans, with one at the event renaming their phone wifi hotspot “LoganSucksDick”.

Yet for me, the boxing match only highlights the fact that Paul and KSI aren’t solely to blame. YouTube is the emperor profiting from the gladiators’ fight.

In 2006, the website’s most popular vlogger was a kindly 79-year-old who chatted about being a mechanic during the Second World War – now the internet’s lost boys watch misogynistic and homophobic Peter Pans rap about Gucci.

A decade ago, the platform carefully curated what to showcase on its front page, featuring vloggers who sang about science and enthused about books. Now, YouTube only features “trending” videos that get the most hits in the shortest amount of time. This motivates YouTubers to create controversy – hate, sex and violence are instant earners. The website itself profits: the boxing match was streamed pay-per-view, and in the end nearly a million people spent £7.50 each to watch.

The fight was a draw – there will be a rematch in America next year. But with arena tickets sold for between £30 and £500, KSI hoodies flogged in the venue for £30 a pop, and Logan Paul gaining 65,000 new subscribers in a single day, it is clear that both men won in the end.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic