The only people policing YouTubers are other YouTubers – with extremely mixed results

The site’s #MeToo moment came long before the rest of the world, so why is it still a haven for abusers?

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On 16 August 2018, 55-year-old Ian Rylett, the owner of one of YouTube’s most popular teen channels, was arrested in a Florida hotel room accused of “lewd and lascivious molestation” of one of his videos’ young female stars. Rylett allegedly touched the girl’s breasts while demanding she undress, before forcibly attempting to remove her underwear. He pleaded not guilty to the charges at an arraignment, and is currently awaiting trial.

One month earlier, 34-year-old Chris Ingham, a British family vlogger who posts videos of his wife and children, was accused of sending inappropriate messages to two fans in their late teens. One girl said she felt “scared” and “unsafe” when Ingham allegedly sent her messages inviting her to go skinny dipping while the pair were staying at the same hotel. She reported the incident to Sussex Police, who later said: “As the girl was over 16, no offences have been committed.” In a video denying the accusations, Ingham said: “I am not a sexual groomer, I am not a paedophile.”

In 2016, YouTuber Tom Laywood, then 18, pleaded guilty to three counts of inciting underage boys to engage in sexual activity and was spared jail. In 2014, 25-year-old YouTube musician Mike Lombardo was jailed for five years on child pornography charges after soliciting pictures and videos from 11 underage fans.

All this suggests that YouTube has a problem with interactions between powerful video creators and their fans. For years, such abuse has thrived on the site, yet YouTube itself offers little recourse for victims. “I was telling my mum two years ago that if this was a real entertainment business – you know, with rules – I’d report him in an instant,” a young woman who previously starred in Rylett’s videos told BuzzFeed News. “But I can’t because there’s nobody here to help me.”

YouTube says it takes child safety on the site “very seriously” and is willing to suspend adverts on a channel while an investigation is undertaken. The site has a generic tool to flag abusive content, but no specific service that allows young people to make it aware of creator-fan abuse.

YouTube’s big #MeToo moment came years before the rest of the world’s, in 2014. However, its legacy makes for depressing reading. That year, YouTube prankster Sam Pepper was accused of rape and sexual assault by multiple women. He denied the allegations, no prosecution was brought, and in 2018 he has 2.3 million subscribers. Also in 2014, vlogger Alex Day admitted to having “manipulative relationships with women” after 14 women and teenage girls accused him of emotional and sexual abuse. In 2018, he released a book about his experiences, which he tellingly concluded with the words: “My only lasting hang-up is that whenever I see a teenage girl with dyed hair or a Gryffindor scarf I assume she hates me.” The 29-year-old’s memoir briefly outsold Zoella’s new book on Amazon. Jason Viohni – a YouTuber who responded to accusations that he assaulted a fan when she was 15 by saying, “I’m not going to deny it. I’d just like the chance to explain myself” – continues to upload videos and has 471,000 subscribers.

Very few high-profile YouTubers have been investigated publicly by the site – and even fewer face punishment. In this lawless climate, something unusual has started to happen – YouTubers are investigating, policing and punishing each other.

Last year, American family vloggers Michael and Heather Martin were charged with child neglect after their abusive “prank” videos were uncovered by YouTube news anchor Philip DeFranco. DeFranco, who has six million subscribers, brought attention to the family – who were filming their youngest son in distress in pursuit of a viral audience. Even after the Martins lost custody of two children, YouTube allowed the family to continue to make money from the site – even gifting Heather a Silver Play Button, a plaque for gaining 100,000 subscribers. The Martins’ channel was only terminated a whole year later, this July, after YouTuber Amanda the Jedi posted a video demonstrating that Mike was “still uploading with manipulation and no remorse”.

DeFranco and Amanda aren’t alone in policing fellow YouTubers. After the Ingham allegations, Alfie Deyes – a British vlogger with four million subscribers and the boyfriend of Zoella – posted a tweet reading: “This behaviour is NOT welcome in this community and we need to stand against it.” During the spate of claims against YouTubers in 2014, veteran vloggers John and Hank Green acted quickly to ban accused abusers from VidCon, the YouTube convention they organise. It is encouraging to see YouTubers take such allegations seriously.

Yet it isn’t always altruistic. This month, YouTuber Shane Dawson launched a documentary series questioning whether Jake Paul (17 million subscribers, brother of Logan, and filmer of remorseless pranks in which he traps his friends in lifts and sets fire to furniture in empty swimming pools) is a sociopath. The documentary trended on the site, and while it makes fascinating viewing, it is ethically dubious to diagnose someone with a mental condition from afar. The series will make Dawson thousands of dollars. In fact, there is now a strong commercial incentive to slate other YouTubers.

Videos with titles such as “Zoella Exposed For LYING & MANIPULATING” earn millions of views, and YouTube gossip shows now have huge fan bases. YouTube’s algorithm makes controversial content successful, and turns this new breed of gossipers into stars. YouTubers warn other stars’ fans that their heroes are abusive – and in the process hope to gain more fans of their own.

It is time for YouTube to take responsibility for its creators. While YouTubers make valiant and not-so-valiant attempts to police each other, abuse flourishes. 

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 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right