It has been established in recent years that YouTube has the potential to be a lucrative business venture. In December 2019, Forbes released an article about the highest paid YouTubers of that year, and it was a jarring reminder of what could be achieved on the platform. For reference, the top five YouTubers cumulatively earned approximately $98.5 million. However, does this potential goldmine encourage certain YouTubers to prioritise the possibility of significant money at the expense of other people?
Take, for instance, YouTube commentary channels specializing in addressing new developments in the world of social media. It is important to note that this content has a diverse range, with some creators focusing their analysis on less serious content, whereas others prioritise the behaviour of fellow creators that tiptoes into the realm of criminal and civil liabilities. For more serious commentary (channels like D’Angelo Wallace), whilst humour is scattered throughout the videos, comedy is not the priority but used as a tool to cement the points being made. Already, one can see how ‘commentary’ is quite the umbrella term.
Most commentary channels fall within the centre of this spectrum, occasionally fluctuating. Where morality greys, however, is when commentary channels decide to make serious videos about fellow creators. Commentary channels will create a video soon after a situation emerges — for example, a heated argument between two vloggers — and usually release further videos as more details become known. If the scandal is big enough, each channel can have from two to five videos dedicated just to one event.
This reactionary style isn’t unique; it’s how news functions. Very few newspapers — and very few commentary channels — will wait until a story has finished developing, and instead will update their audience as the situation continues. But the glaring problem with this, especially regarding social media, was best highlighted in the James Charles scandal.
In May 2019, James Charles — a 20-year-old beauty vlogger — was hit with several severe allegations by fellow makeup vlogger, Tati Westbrook. Amongst other things, James Charles was accused of sexualizing heterosexual men. Subsequently, Charles, who at the time had around 15 million subscribers, lost over 3 million in less than 48 hours. Other videos emerged, with some daring to go as far as accusing Charles of outright sexual harassment, and overall quite a toxic landscape settled over YouTube and Twitter for a while, with Charles becoming the subject of heavy dosages of criticism, mockery and, inevitably, homophobia.
This, unfortunately, is where commentary channels enter. Instead of waiting to see if any of the allegations had strong evidence, quite a few commentary channels seized the existing tidbits of information and created entire videos around those preliminary allegations. Sky News also reported on the scandal as it progressed, except their one article is essentially a list of facts — who James Charles is, who accused him, what he was accused of, and the fallout relating to subscribers — with zero underlying comments. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, were less objective, peppering their articles with ‘[Creator] seems to believe …’. throughout.
This tabloid approach was mirrored by commentary channels. Since the situation was volatile throughout social media, videos on the matter were guaranteed to garner thousands of views. For example: a commentary channel called ‘ImAllexx’ — currently boasting 1.83m subscribers — made four videos on the beauty community at the time, focusing mainly on the scandal. Combined, these videos have close to 6.5 million views, but the first video (‘My Experience with James Charles’) demonstrates the problems surrounding hastily made commentary content. The video continues to stress some of the allegations Westbrook made, such as Charles claiming he could circumvent a waiter’s sexuality simply because he was famous. When Charles later responded, with evidence from said waiter, and denied such an event ever occurring, the internet became less one-sided. But the original video by ImAllexx rebroadcasting Westbrook’s allegations, when Charles had not yet fully responded, hasn’t been deleted and neither the video itself nor the description have been updated to reflect the changes in circumstances.
Another commentary channel, Kwite, with over 700k subscribers, has three videos on the scandal. The last of the trio is entitled ‘We Were Wrong about James Charles’ but the other two videos — which are based on facts that Kwite now says are ‘wrong’ — are still up on the channel. It has become a fact of YouTube that creators can and will make money off someone else’s downfall.
It is not the presentation of an opinion that poses an issue. Video sagas like these highlight the capriciousness of internet scandals; namely, how easy it is for one creator to launch a vitriolic campaign against another whilst omitting any facts that would garner them their own share of scrutiny, and how readily commentary channels will consume it, before regurgitating the ‘facts’ to their audience with their own opinion tacked on — as well as plenty of ads.
When the Daily Mail asserts its own agenda — it has received constant criticism for its potentially race-based attacks of Meghan Markle, claiming her a ‘security headache’ — it is not met positively by the internet community. When a YouTuber takes a similar approach towards equally contentious issues, such as accusations of sexual harassment, and treats opinions as matter of fact, they’re rewarded with millions of views and barely any sign of criticism.
Has the commentary side of YouTube become a safer alternative to tabloid papers?
Possibly, because of how we as social media consumers do not expect the average YouTuber to be a qualified and ethical journalist (a testament to whether people consider YouTube a viable career), and yet a YouTuber could be armed with a surprisingly large audience. For reference, the Daily Mail had an average daily circulation of around 1.16 million in January of 2020, whilst young adults with a camera are able to rival such numbers.
Moreover, there is the issue of commentators playing into the hands of people that create scandals just to get attention. One example of this involves Kaitlin Bennett, whose name was originally circulating on Twitter because she posed for graduation photos whilst holding an AR-10. She recently made news after filming herself walking around university campuses, interviewing students with controversial questions to spark reactions. One video includes her calling homosexuality ‘gross’ and surmising that gay men would try to kiss her fiancée, whilst in other videos she frequently launches into pro-life and transphobic diatribes without giving her interviewees a chance to respond.
Commentary channels leapt on this, including the aforementioned ImAllexx. But these videos again highlighted the underlying issue with commentary channels feeding into the attention-seeking of internet ‘celebrities’ seeking their next instalment of quick fame. It is unlikely that a viewer of these commentary videos will be pro-life before watching these critical videos of Bennett and then come out the other side pro-choice. So, who do these videos benefit if creators are preaching to the choir? For one, it benefits Bennett and her ilk, because these commentary videos potentially introduced millions of watchers to Bennett’s discriminatory opinions. Optimism might say that most watchers would not agree with Bennett’s opinions, but realism says that a couple might be interested in what the ‘gun girl’ has to say. Thus, ImAllexx isn’t swaying any viewers to the side of gun control with these types of videos, but, arguably, he is introducing existing pro-gun advocates to a new figurehead.
What now? Any attempt by YouTube to diminish the creative rights of commentary channels raises a significant freedom of speech issue, and it is a fair argument to say that we should not expect audiences to treat YouTube commentators as reliable news sources. Instead, is part of the blame on the audience for being too gullible to consider that creators may choose monetary gain as a priority?
The internet has proven itself capable of generating celebrity millionaires, so, in the vein of the world outside social media, can there also be internet ‘journalists’ dedicated to celebrity gossip? Evidence would say yes, potentially indicating criticism of YouTube commentators is justified. When armed with a large audience, there may not be existing legal responsibility for the content commentators produce, but when commentary can contribute to a hate culture around one single person, there’s undeniably moral responsibility. In the same way that publications by tabloids can create entire internet campaigns against whomever they choose as their next target, YouTube commentators should be cognisant of what floodgates they too might be opening.