The story of Sam Pepper: how a British YouTuber incurred the wrath of the internet

The Dapper Laughs of online pranks has finally gone too far.

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Last night, a Twitter user claiming to be "a voice" for hacker collective Anonymous sent out a series of angry tweets slamming a video featuring "violent abuse". The user wasn't referring to Isis, which is the subject of an ongoing campaign by the hacker group, but a young, turquoise-haired British man named Sam Pepper. 

Pepper is a YouTube star who came to fame after appearing in the 11th series of reality show Big Brother. He's known for his prank YouTube videos posted under the username "Sam", which have in the past involved such hilarious japes as wearing a prosthetic old man's face and climbing into bed with his own girlfriend. He now lives in LA, but has made videos with other prominent British YouTubers, including, of course, Zoella. 

So on the face of it, it's a little surprising that @TheAnonMessage blasted out this tirade against the star last night as a series of tweets to his 170,000-odd followers:

We've been notified of a sick, disturbing video uploaded by @sampepper. Yet again, he uses violent abuse to garner subscribers.

This is something that we cannot stand for. This so-called prank should bring shame to the YouTube community for supporting this imbecile.

This video must be taken down. @SamPepper you have been warned. You have 24 hours or we will unleash fucking hell on you.

The video in question, "KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK | Ft. Sam & Colby", was published on 29 November but already has over two million views. In it, Pepper teams up with Colby, half of the YouTube duo Sam & Colby, to pretend to, er, kill him, and terrify the other Sam in the process.

Sam and Colby drive into shot, then both get out of the car to check the oil. A figure wearing a black balaclava grabs Sam, put a bag over his head, tapes up his hands and dumps him in the boot of the car, all with Colby's help. The pair take him to a rooftop, where the bag is removed, and Pepper - the masked attacker - shoots Sam in the head with a fake gun. The visual references to Isis are hard to ignore:  

Photo: Sam Pepper via YouTube

What follows is a genuinely disturbing thirty seconds in which Sam screams and cries, eventually drowned out and replaced in the video's edit by tinkly piano music. Finally, Colby stands up and reveals he isn't dead. 

YouTubers responded angrily to the prank. Commenters called it "cruel" and seemed genuinely distressed by Sam's experience. The video's approval ratings, represented by thumbs up and thumbs down, are a good indication of audience reaction: 

So what happens if Pepper doesn't remove the video within 24 hours? Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous told me that "[@TheAnonMessage] has earned the wrath of Anonymous for acting irresponsibly" in the past (most notably, the user launched an attack on the wrong Ferguson police officer), and isn't part of the main Anonymous group. However, this doesn't mean the user couldn't attack Sam's channel or website. Either way, @TheAnonMessage has leapt on the coattails of a controversy that seems to have caught the imagination of large swathes of social media.

From Pepper's own point of view, though, it's easy to see why the whole furore is a little mystifying. His entire empire is founded on pushing boundaries of acceptability, and no one involved in this particular prank is angry - the video includes an epilogue where he chats to Sam and Colby, and Sam grins and exclaims "that was crazy!". In an interview on YouTube channel DramaAlert, the three defend the video, and say the prank was fair game as Sam has been in the "video prank arena" for years and didn't object to it being posted. 

There's a parallel with the comedian Daniel O'Reilly (also known by his persona Dapper Laughs) here: both are young male entertainers who built an online audience through pushing the envelope with humour and pranks, and are then a bit shocked when they cross an invisible line and are lambasted for behaviour not dissimilar to the actions that earned them followers in the first place. 

Pepper, like Dapper, has been accused of misogyny, and even sexual harassment in his videos - he removed one, "Fake Hand Pinch Prank", which involved grabbing women in public using a fake hand, following online outcry. Multiple women have also accused him of sexual assault and harassment, which led to the British YouTube community distancing itself from him over the past couple of years. Yet one of his most watched videos is "How to Make Out with Strangers”, in which he approaches random women in Venice Beach, LA, says things like “I’m seeing which beautiful girls would like to make out…with me,” and kisses them. The video received none of the same criticism, and earned him over 17 million views.

The difference between the two videos lies, of course, in consent, as Pepper at least pretends to ask the women's permission in the Venice Beach video. Yet as YouTuber Laci Green gently points out in an open letter to Pepper written at the time: "You pressure women on camera to make out with you - again, many of whom are visibly uncool with it. Confused and caught off guard, they painfully follow through with your requests, clearly uncomfortable."

What's clear is that the internet is still trying to figure out what is acceptable in the realm of humour. Internet-friendly humour tends to be slapstick, brash, irrelevant, and involve making fun of gormless members of the public. But pushed to extremes - the extremes which can seem necessary to make a name for yourself in the saturated vlogger market - these gags can easily turn nasty. 

 

Update 2/12: 

@TheAnonNews, an account which boosts campaigns from other Anonymous accounts, has tweeted its disapproval of @TheAnonMessage's campaign, thereby distancing Anonymous from it: 

Update 14/12/2015:

In response to the backlash, Pepper offered to delete his entire account if his critics donated a total of $1.5m. In a video uploaded for only an hour, he launched a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign, which was also then deleted shortly after. The video was in response to a 200,000-strong petition calling for Pepper's channel to be deleted.

Update 22/2/2016:

Pepper has deleted all his tweets and changed his YouTube channel to "private", meaning all videos (including the one above) are no longer viewable. 

His only explanation so far is this tweet: 

Update 25/2/2016:

Pepper has finally uploaded a video explaining his disappearance:

In the out-of-focus, rambling video, which lacks any of Pepper's usual snazzy editing or effects, he promises to speak to the viewer "like a friend" and "be completely honest". He admits that many of his pranks were faked, and the overall effect is reminiscent of Instagrammer and model Essena O'Neill's admission that much of her online presence was constructed

Some extracts:

 "I did silly pranks. I did stuff to make people laugh, just really silly, harmless, dumb stuff....The people involved in the videos would always laugh."

"I'm not telling you this for sympathy. I'm here because of me." 

"All these other prank channels came out, and they'd be doing more and more crazy pranks. I'd be watching saying 'there's no way they're actually doing that'. All this stuff is fake. All it was about was the end goal. So I worked out that I can do these pranks, I can just fake them. I can make fake videos."

"I wanted to get views, I wanted to make money. It's my job. I made videos so I can live."

"What I wasn't thinking this whole time was that if I have to fake a video, that means its too crazy for me to do for real. If you can't do it in real life, then you shouldn'lt be doing that as a fake prank. " 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.