Being in the spotlight can be great for an influencer’s career, but for a few top influencers on YouTube, it’s also meant that missteps, mistakes, and poor decisions are very public. YouTubers have seen a fair number of scandals in the last few years, from FTC violations to pranks in poor taste.
And much like celebrity missteps, when there’s a scandal afoot, it tends to make the news.
The most recent example is the controversy surrounding PewDiePie, who was called out for anti-semitic remarks and content in several of his videos. Now facing severe backlash and the loss of two key partnerships (one with Maker Studios, which cut ties with PewDiePie, and the other with YouTube, which canceled the second season of Scare PewDiePie), PewDiePie is just the most recent example of a YouTube scandal.
Here are more notable and famous YouTuber scandals that have changed and shaped the YouTube influencer community and the way that YouTubers interact with their fan bases and the world outside of YouTube.
This isn’t the first time PewDiePie’s found himself in trouble where his YouTube career is concerned. In July, controversy sprung up surrounding PewDiePie’s apparent failure to disclose a sponsorship with WB Games. Though he did disclose the fact that WB Games paid him for the content, he did so in the description box on the video. Under FTC regulations, PewDiePie’s disclosure wasn’t adequate and is deemed somewhat deceptive. WB Games eventually settled with the FTC and PewDiePie changed his methods for disclosing the nature of sponsorships, featuring the disclosure more prominently in videos.
FTC guidelines are extremely important. The exist to ensure that consumers and viewers can tell the difference between paid sponsorships and content and genuine endorsements fueled by experience and an actual belief in a brand, company, product or service. When YouTubers like PewDiePie or networks (like the one in our next example) get called on the carpet, it reinforces the strength of those regulations.
Another FTC scandal comes from Machinima, a major YouTube gaming multi-channel network. Much like the PewDiePie FTC scandal, Machinima’s trouble centered around improper disclosure of paid endorsements and sponsorships for a deal with Microsoft to produce content casting the Xbox One in a “positive light.” The FTC complaint pointed to two channels, SkyVSGaming and The Syndicate Project, but the deal included 300 videos across Machinima channels. Ultimately, though, the settlement didn’t lead to any fines or legal action against Machinima, Microsoft, or the agency through which Microsoft made the deal with Machinima.
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Scandals don’t always come in the form of FTC violations or questionable remarks and imagery. In 2015, YouTuber Matthew Lush ran into trouble with JetBlue after he posted the name and employee number of a JetBlue customer service agent on social media after he spoke to them about an alleged JetBlue error and didn’t receive what he deemed a satisfactory resolution. When Lush arrived for his flight, he was deemed a “security threat” and escorted from the terminal and banned from the airline. Lush responded by compelling his followers to #BoycottJetBlue.
Though criticism of brands and companies is commonplace on platforms like Twitter, explicitly mentioning a single individual is dangerous, even without their full name or other identifying factors. Instances like this serve as proof that putting individuals at risk by releasing private information without permission is a major problem.
In April of last year, LeafyIsHere, a YouTuber whose videos reach nearly 4.5 million subscribers, became the subject of backlash and controversy when he mocked a fellow YouTuber with a learning disability. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, either. In videos prior, Leafy made light of cyberbullying, mocked an autistic vlogger, and made the weight and appearances of other YouTubers punchlines for “jokes” on his channel.
YouTube has a harassment and cyberbullying policy, but it’s not always strictly enforced. Because of the staggering number of videos uploaded every day, YouTube can’t catch every instance of cyber bullying or harassment on its own. When users call out violations on their own, it lets creators know that people are watching what they say closely and will be willing to report questionable behavior.
Abuse reporting is a big factor on social media platforms, and it’s becoming increasingly important. While platforms like Instagram and YouTube have guidelines in place to investigate and combat instances of abuse, Twitter (and Vine, when it was around) is notorious for having problems with effectively and efficiently working against abuse online.
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YouTuber Sam Pepper experienced backlash after uploading a “prank” video in which he and a friend staged a kidnapping and murder in order to scare Vine star Sam Golbach. Working with Golbach’s friend, Colby Brock, Pepper orchestrated a prank in which Golbach and Brock were abducted, tied up, and thrown in a trunk, then taken to a second location where a masked man pretended to shoot and kill Brock. Though the entire ordeal was staged, Golbach was put under extreme stress and the prank itself was deemed deeply inappropriate by many viewers who spoke out against it.
Though prank videos make for popular and shareable content, going to far is a real risk. There’s a certain point at which scaring someone becomes unfunny or dangerous, and the backlash against Sam Pepper proves that creators have to tread carefully when approaching that line.