YouTubers: sexual assault isn’t a prank

Consent shouldn’t go out the window because the camera is rolling

David Dobrik is an influencer whose content doesn’t promote consent.
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To members of Generation Z, David Dobrik is a household name.

Starting on Vine but finding most of his success on YouTube over the past five years, Dobrik became one of the most popular vloggers on the platform. As the creator of the “Vlog Squad,” Dobrik posted short vlogs multiple times a week featuring his influencer friends. Dobrik’s vlogs were receiving tens of millions of views at their peak, even when the YouTube algorithm was favouring longer content.

Toxic behind-the-scenes behaviour from Dobrik and his friends has been called out by other influencers in past years. However, those claims have been largely ignored by viewers—it wasn’t until a former member of the Vlog Squad shared last month that he felt a prank Dobrik pulled on him three years ago was sexual assault that these allegations started gaining serious tractions.

Seth Francois shared on H3 Podcast how he felt after Dobrik switched up the end of a prank without Francois’ knowledge. Francois was told to kiss someone in a costume, whom he was led to believe was a woman in the Vlog Squad. Instead, he unknowingly locked lips with Dobrik’s close friend Jason Nash, a man in his mid-forties. This is someone Francois never consented to kiss.

Seven years ago, Youtuber Sam Pepper made a video he called a ‘social experiment’ in which he went up to women he didn’t know in public and groped them on camera. Public pranks that included bothering strangers on the street were popular at the time, but few went as far as Pepper. Pepper’s ill-advised prank faced immediate backlash. What wasn’t clear to Pepper was seen immediately by audiences: sexual assault isn’t a prank.

In other words, the connection between YouTube pranks and rape culture is not a new one.

Pepper’s controversy happened when ‘social experiment’-style videos were already on the decline. However, YouTube pranks didn’t vanish into thin air, they evolved into something more family—and AdSense—friendly.

No longer were men approaching women they didn’t know in public—at least not on successful channels. Instead, YouTubers pranked their friends, girlfriends, parents, and siblings.

Most of these pranks were very obviously staged, made only to be believed by children. In poorly edited, awkward videos, you could find dozens of 20-somethings pretending they put dye in their unknowing parent’s shampoo or boyfriends telling their girlfriends they’re joining the military. These pranks are mostly harmless if you can handle the cringey dialogue and bad acting.

These staged pranks were fine if you were producing content for a young audience with the sole purpose of making as much AdSense money as possible. But for vloggers like David Dobrik and Jake Paul, who were making daily content for slightly older audiences, everything had to be genuine.

With ‘squads’ full of less-popular influencers whose whole careers relied on remaining in the group, leaders like Dobrik could get away with pulling off these pranks for real. Like a toxic work environment, harassment can easily be brushed off as part of the job.

This isn’t about cancelling Dobrik—not that the backlash isn’t warranted. Dobrik and his Vlog Squad’s behaviour is part of a larger problem, one in which thinly veiled sexual assault can be used for cheap laughs.

Millions of children and adults alike watched Francois’ assault and laughed along with the Vlog Squad. Videos like Dobrik’s solidified in viewers minds that lack of consent was okay for the sake of comedy. Unfortunately, there are thousands of videos like Dobrik’s in which a lack of consent is the punchline.

YouTube is a largely unmonitored platform, despite being one of the largest media companies in the world. Unlike television, movies, and books, standards of publishing and labour don’t exist. A group of friends recording videos together isn’t a workplace, even when they’re making tens of millions of dollars doing so. There are no limits on curse words or required censoring of particularly racy jokes. Although there’s a system that restricts adult content unless you are logged in with the account of an adult, there is nothing stopping a child from saying they’re over 18.

What we can do, as viewers, is hold these creators accountable. Since Francois told his story, an anonymous woman has come forward with a sexual assault allegation against a former member of the Vlog Squad. Dobrik lost over 100,000 subscribers in one day.

Dobrik has released a two-minute apology video, in which little was addressed.

Still, we can’t let the conversation end here. It’s up to the consumers of online content to decide what’s worth our time, to stop the passive viewing of online videos and think critically about what should count as comedy. If influencers can’t make a joke without foregoing consent, there’s a good chance they were never all that entertaining in the first place.

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