[By: Saba Hamedy] [Mashable] [Read More]
It only took one interaction for April Fletcher to get sucked in.
It was at the E3 conference in 2011, and Fletcher was there for work. At the time, she didn’t really know what YouTube was. Still, YouTuber Toby Turner, she recalled, had a goofy grin and a knack for enchanting large crowds. His demeanor was almost annoying.
They exchanged numbers. They Facetimed. They texted. She eventually even moved to L.A. It was all normal – until one day, she realized it wasn’t. She says he cheated on her. Yelled at her. Wouldn't stop texting her. Didn’t want her to befriend other YouTube creators. Started doing drugs. Drugged her. Raped her.
A few months ago, when she saw him immortalized as a toy – his face on an action figure inside a box labeling him a “hero” – she couldn’t hold back anymore. Fletcher ran out of the Toys R Us in Porter Ranch, California, and spent the next 12 hours crying and writing in her Los Angeles apartment.
On April 8, she hit publish on a Tumblr post: “The truth about Tobuscus.”
To the public, Turner (a.k.a. Tobuscus) is an A-list digital creator. To Fletcher, he is her ex-boyfriend – and alleged abuser.
“There’s a problem with the power structure on YouTube,” Fletcher toldMashable. “The whole point of YouTube is that everyone can be somebody, it was about making sure there wasn’t a line back in the day. But now there should be a line because there are fan girls that will do anything and there are guys that will let them do anything.”
This kind of dynamic -- between a digital influencer and a fan -- has become commonplace in the “Team Internet” community. Over the last few years, dozens have come forward to share stories of creators who have had inappropriate relationships with those who see them as bona fide celebrities.
It’s become an open wound for Team Internet: the fact that the intimate interactions that define the community is also its darkest danger.
Top digital influencers vlog their every move, virtually breaking down any and all barriers. The fans, too, have easy, IRL access to creators at meet-ups, conventions like VidCon and informal gatherings with fellow fans at local malls and bookstores. And they idolize the YouTube stars because they appear (and many really are) authentic and sincere.
But fandom without limits makes Team Internet vulnerable. The community, which for the most part is known for being uplifting and positive, has suddenly become more of a toxic environment as harassment controversies continue to pile up.
Allegations of harassment and inappropriate conduct from #TeamInternet community members date back to 2012. Since then, Tumblr (read accounts from people who have come forward here) has become a go-to platform for victims to voice their concerns and traumatic experiences.
The posts accuse a wide range of digital influencers, ranging from popular big names like Turner (who has amassed about 15 million subscribers across his three channels) to smaller creators like Alex Carpenter (known for his Harry Potter wizard rock band The Remus Lupins). Most have not resulted in criminal complaints, but they remain archived in the pages of internet history.
“The internet has made it much easier to be taken advantage of,” Los Angeles Police Department Detective Ninette Toosbuy told Mashable. “And if you have some notoriety or fame, you can really bank on that.”
Hank Green, who rose to fame on YouTube alongside brother and YA author John Green, has seen that dynamic play out at VidCon, the very conference he created.
“When it first became clear that some creators were having inappropriate relationships with fans, either because they were just bad people or because they didn't understand the magnitude of the power imbalance, it was a huge wake up call for this industry,” Hank Green told Mashable in an email interview. “There has been a long history of that kind of abuse in entertainment, and a long history of tolerating or even romanticizing it. There are a lot of steps on this path, but the first is educating both creators and communities to be aware that this power imbalance exists and that these relationships can go very bad very quickly.”
“The Internet has made it much easier to be taken advantage of,” said Los Angeles Police Department Detective Ninette Toosbuy. “And if you have some notoriety or fame, you can really bank on that.”
The Star Factor
For a while there, Vidcon was Ground Zero for spawning relationships that sometimes went too far. Before security was heightened in the past couple of years, the Hilton Hotel right next to the Anaheim Convention Center was a mob scene of creators and fans.
Hundreds lingered by the elevators, stairwells and even the bar, awaiting their favorite stars. There were no guards telling them to back off; instead, they knew their favorite celebrities’ room numbers, and ways to get there unnoticed.
Things are different in traditional Hollywood, where A-listers still maintain a safe distance. There are bodyguards, publicists and dedicated teams working to help them maneuver the fame and shape their image.
“Back in the day to be a so-called ‘groupie’ you really had to hustle with security and follow a band or celebrity at every single venue,” Toosbuy said. “Now, with stuff like Twitter, these stars have easy access to 12 and 13 year olds. If you are the kind of guy who is a jerk and want to capitalize on getting young girls today, it’s the perfect environment for that.”
What’s more, fear of consequence doesn’t prevail in the digital space. These digital stars aren’t contracted at a studio, and most don’t have a small army of handlers to whom they are accountable. They achieved fame for themselves, some literally overnight. And since their uncensored selves are the reason for their fame, they don’t listen anyway, many in the industry who have worked with young creators tell Mashable.
In some cases, agencies and PR firms have dropped clients over conduct. One person in the industry said they asked a digital influencer what was the best gift they ever received from a fan.
The young teen star simply said: “A blowjob.”
'Now I'm paying for deception'
Alex Day knows he screwed up.
In 2014, about 14 people -- including Day’s ex-girlfriend -- alleged that the former YouTube star behaved inappropriately, with some saying he also committed sexual assault. It’s the most people to speak out about any one digital star to date.
“I was a manipulative person and I think I did put pressure on people, although I certainly didn’t see it that way at the time,” Day, who became popular on YouTube for his Doctor Who fan band Chameleon Circuit, told Mashable in a phone interview.
The 27-year-old, who lives in London, said he didn’t know how to react when the accusations first came out. He wrote a blog called “on mistakes." He then wrote “On mistakes 2” -- a response to his response. Eventually, he gave up on apologizing and deactivated the account.
“I feel very regretful that I used to be that way and that, however unknowingly, I made people feel that way,” he said. “I don’t want to have sexual encounters with people who aren’t into it. That’s not fun for me. The idea that I ever did have that is very troubling and I wish it hadn’t happened.” (For a full Q&A with Alex Day,click here).
Mashable reached out to over a dozen digital influencers accused of sexual harassment using the listed public contact information, including their emails (some registered to old YouTube accounts) and social media. Only Day replied.
Day says back when he was at his career high, he didn’t understand that fans put him on a pedestal, nor the responsibility that comes with that.
“I genuinely didn’t consider myself famous,” he said. “From my perspective, I just sat in my room and made videos that people liked. Also, the idea of a girl being into me because I make videos in the bedroom is the opposite of everything I’ve even been taught. I didn’t think I was sexy. But the people on the Internet didn’t accept that ... they thought how could I possibly not realize I was in the position of power.”
Day lost all his Team Internet friends. He now always has his guard up. Recently, for example, a girl (who is 20) emailed him after watching his videos, asking if he’d like to meet up.
“I was really self-conscious about it,” he said. “To me she’s just a person I just met, but I was really concerned. She had to keep being like ‘It’s fine, you’re not taking advantage.’”
It’s taken some time, but Day said he has come to terms with everything that happened. Eventually, he began making videos again. At his peak, he was getting more than 2 million views on videos that he deemed silly, such as hisdramatic hilarious readings of the Twilight books. Now, he’s lucky if he gets more than 20,000 views.
Losing subscribers, views and friends -- a.k.a essentially getting booted from Team Internet -- is the standard consequence. Most of the accused end up going dark on the web, stripping all ties they once had to the community. Some -- like Day -- offer apologies, but their reputations remain damaged. And a few (arguably Turner) even go unscathed, with their fervent fan followings refusing to believe any allegations.
YouTube musician Ed “Eddplant” Blann, who was in Day’s Dr. Who band, even admitted to being in an abusive relationship with a fan in Tumblr. Ten months later, he uploaded a song about flaws and regrets.
"I've got regrets too blue to mention
and I sold myself with the image of perfection
I've heard the truth will out
but I've always had my doubts
Now I'm paying for deception
So cast me like a stone against the rocks,
Reveal a cross-section of all my wrongs;
my every flaw exposed,
and I'll weather them:
I'll chase the storm of hate and lost respect
'til I'm a better man, I won't rest
I won't let go of what I've done
I'll let it shape what I become”
Now, the musician still sometimes uploads videos on YouTube and tweets to his 352 followers -- but he never fully bounced back from the backlash. The last video he posted was seven months ago.
Despite a slew of high-profile accusations, Toosbuy said she’s only seen one case at LAPD related to a digital influencer: In November 2015, then 15-year-old YouTube star Steven Fernandez was arrested after allegedly sexually exploiting a 12-year-old girl.
The skateboarder and social media star, who has amassed more than 701,000 subscribers to his channel since joining the platform in 2012, allegedly promised that he would introduce her to celebrities and let her appear on his non-existent MTV show "in exchange for sexual acts." Both Fernandez and his 22-year-old manager Jose Barajas were arrested and are awaiting trial, Toosbuy said. A representative for Fernandez did not reply to Mashable’s request for comment.
The only known case of digital influencer being sentenced to jail time for online harassment is Michael Lombardo (Mashable obtained the court documents -- embedded below).
The musician, whose first channel is now closed on YouTube and whosesecond channel has just over 2,000 subscribers, was charged and sentenced to five years in prison in 2014 for soliciting sexually explicit photos from an underage fan, according to court documents.
Tumblr archives and old YouTube videos are also telling -- though many have been removed over time.
Though the harassment epidemic is now more publicized, the question remains: Whose responsibility is it to monitor and prevent this from continuing?
Is it the stars' responsibility to draw boundaries around themselves? Do the fans need to dial back on their obsessions? Do platforms and the companies built around them need to better educate fans and creators about how to create a safer Internet culture?
Uplift: Online Communities Against Sexual Violence -- a nonprofit founded in 2014 -- believes it’s all of the above. The organization’s mission is to help combat sexual abuse in online communities through education and advocacy.
“We started a couple of years ago after there was this wave of allegations,” Katie Twyman, Uplift co-founder and co-executive director, said. “It was like the magnified version of the bystander effect: Everyone wanted to something about the allegations, but no one knew if they should be the one to step forward. And no one knew how to address such a huge issue. We ended up stepping forward.”
The organization had a booth on the VidCon floor both this year and last year, and Mashable recently featured a series produced by the nonprofit in a list of YouTube channels that "will make you smarter about social justice."
“It became clear there was a structural problem, and a short-term solution would not be adequate,” added Grace Miller, co-founder and operations director of Uplift. “I think what’s so unique about this kind of community, and these kinds of relationship dynamics, is we are seeing creators who risen to prominence -- and hold extremely high elevated social positions that have unprecedented access to their fans.”
At VidCon, Uplift handed out fliers and small guides to digital abuse, including “warning signs your child is in an unhealthy relationship” (for parents) and “love is digital” tips. They also asked attendees to sign a “safer community pledge” and collected results for their VidCon safety survey.
They also promoted The #HackHarassment pledge, created by another group of individuals who have similar goals of building a safer, smarter and more inclusive experience online.
The Green brothers have been vocal about their support of nonprofits like Uplift and in the past even helped create a task force against abuse and assault.
They produced and funded a series of videos that discussed abuse and consent in sexual relationships. They have also banned influencers -- most notably Sam Pepper, who came under fire for his prank videos in which he pinched women's butts -- at VidCon after community members expressed concerns.
“We also need creators to know that this isn't like the music industry,” Hank Green told Mashable. “You can't beat up your girlfriend and perform at the VMAs the next year. People in this community have worked hard to hold people accountable when they cross these lines, and I don't see that going away.”
YouTube has guidelines against hate speech and harassment that apply to comments as well as videos. The platform gives people multiple ways to report and manage comments on the site. But it doesn’t monitor the interaction between creators and fans. It also doesn’t usually kick users off its platform, which goes against the platform’s democratic roots. Vine also has rules in place.
Some, including Detective Toosbuy, say the responsibility falls solely on parents.
“You have to warn your kid,” Toosbuy said. “A lot of problem is parents are like ‘What’s Snapchat? What’s Kik?” But your job is to educate yourself on what’s out there. That’s all you can do.”
But maneuvering the multitude of platforms -- ranging from the OG YouTube to newcomers like music.ly -- has become a difficult task. At this year’s VidCon, the Kia Parent's Lounge even sponsored a “Social 101” seminar so parents could learn everything and anything about the world their kids live in 24/7.
A handful of parents in the lounge said they were aware of the existing dangers of such an open creator-fan dynamic.
“I spot-check her phone,” Susan Paragas, who is mom to a 13-year-old daughter, told Mashable. “I check because I never know who she might be meeting up with … but she’s very open about showing me when I ask. I question her, ‘Who are you talking to?’ It’s all mostly friends from school and family members ... I always try to teach her what’s right and wrong when it comes to the Internet.”
This year, Paragas, who lives in Pomona, California, felt her daughter was mature enough to wander VidCon with just her friends. But only the friends her daughter was familiar with, and only if she promised to check in via text every hour.
Even some parents who are strict with their kids expressed shock when informed that such cases of harassment are so common.
“I feel so ignorant,” Marcia Haresh, from Los Angeles, told Mashable.
The mother of a 14-year-old daughter said even though she monitors Instagram, her husband monitors Snapchat and her cousin monitors Twitter, the openness of the Internet culture is still alarming.
“She [my daughter] is so innocent,” Haresh said. “She doesn’t really understand the dark side. I’m that crazy mom who gives her all the scenarios that could happen … now that I know about [sexual harassment] I’ll just add a whole other layer of crazy to the scenarios.”
Following Fletcher’s Tumblr post, Turner uploaded a video, saying he was "shocked" and "hurt" by the allegations.
"I want to be crystal clear: I've never done anything without her consent," he said in the video (below). "I've never tried to trick her into anything."
"As Toby stated in his video, the allegations against him are categorically false,” a representative for Turner told Mashable in an email statement. “Unfortunately, while the Internet is capable of tremendous good, oftentimes telling the truth becomes a secondary consideration to telling compelling stories. Those that choose to spread lies rarely face consequences while those they attack can face irreparable damage. It’s really difficult to put the genie back in the bottle."
Because Turner is such a high-profile YouTuber, news of the harassment allegations ended up dividing the community. Fletcher received an outpouring of support (an unexpected amount of which she said came from creators themselves) as well as hate (Turner’s fans continue to troll her on the Internet).
“When someone is constantly harassing you, you have to walk on eggshells,” Fletcher told Mashable. “He has so much power within the community, he could destroy me by tweeting something about me.”
After the post was published, Fletcher took the allegations a step further and filed a police report with rape and drug charges against Turner. Fletcher -- who hasn’t talked to Turner since January -- isn’t sure what will happen to her ex next, though law enforcement officials have said her case may take up to one to three years to go to trial.
For now, she takes comfort in knowing that at least one thing has changed since she came forward on Tumblr: