R@@ed and SA-ed: Easier done than said
“Gen Z’s Jimmy Fallon” / David Dobrik’s meteoric rise was reversed in only one week, as the YouTube megastar lost more than 2.3 billion video views and got dropped by sponsors HBO Max, EA Sports, Facebook, and even the football club and photo-app he cofounded. This biblical downfall took place after Dobrik was accused of directing and videotaping his YouTuber friends SA-ing people for his vlogs, a behavior so disgusting to YouTube, apparently, that the platform demonetized all of Dobrik’s videos. But did you know that YouTube will demonetize your videos too, if you actually say out loud what SA stands for?
It started in February 2021, when former Vlog Squad (YouTuber ensemble lead by Dobrik) member Seth Francois came out against Dobrik, accusing the latter of orchestrating a prank that involved Francois being groped and kissed by a man without consenting to it, for a vlog.
Even though, in a resurfaced podcast clip, Dobrik talks about the “prank”, acknowledging that he specifically targeted Francois as a black man from Compton because homosexuality is not very acceptable there, sponsors, investors and mainstream media serenely slept through this first crack in Dobrik’s (deceptively) unblemished image.
But the implications of the story were not missed by everyone and the Youtube-sphere became abuzz with videos in which the “ese*”-sounding abbreviation for sexual assault was repeatedly used, in relation to what happened to Francois.
The word “SA” itself is borrowed from TikTokers, but it’s not the only peculiarly cryptographic term about an issue considered “controversial” by YouTube’s Advertiser-friendly content guidelines.
Dobrik’s YouTube fans and detractors are now fervently discussing a woman’s alleged r-word (YouTuber code word for rape), which was portrayed as consensual group sex in a Dobrik vlog and recently received public attention when The Business Insider ran a story on it, evidently signaling to big money it’s about time they started caring too.
Leaving aside how messed up it is that, in terms of PR and monetary forfeits, sexually assaulting a man is apparently more cost-effective than sexually assaulting a woman, what stands out the most is the tragicomic phenomenon of being unable to discuss sexual assault or rape on a platform that celebrates content “jokingly” showing exactly that.
Dobrik, who has an estimated net worth of US$20 million and also enjoys immense popularity beyond the world of online entertainment (he beat Harry Styles and Shawn Mendes to People magazine’s “Sexiest Heartthrob of 2019”, starred in The Angry Birds Movie 2 and hosted a SpongeBob SquarePants special), was regularly making vlogs in which participants were humiliated, bullied, physically injured and, as it turns out, sexually assaulted under the guise of a “prank” or “party” with the Vlog Squad, until the Covid-19 outbreak forced him to stop making videos altogether.
And yet, heaven forbid YouTube, whose global advertising revenues in 2020 amounted to US$19.77 billion, allows content creators to call a spade a spade without fear of demonetization. Words deemed too controversial to be featured in advertisement-friendly content, are automatically flagged for demonetization by the platform’s A.I. which can’t, obviously, contextualize the way words like “rape” are being used.
The issue of idiot A.I. censoring content creators by virtue of good ol’ corporate greed was even more spectacularly highlighted in the first months of the Covid-19 outbreak, when YouTube demonetized all videos mentioning what would turn out to be a global pandemic, as the topic was deemed too “sensitive”. As expected, news channels bringing in their own advertising deals were exempt from demonetization whereas regular creators suffered complete censorship. This demonstrates that YouTube prioritizes sheltering advertisers from negative associations at all costs, even if it means throwing the baby out with the bathwater (in the end, YouTube agreed to monetize coronavirus-related content).
Given that, ultimately, it only took a global health crisis for YouTubers to be able to say “Covid-19” or “coronavirus” without fear of demonetization, I fear what it will take for them to be able to say “sexual assault” or “rape”.
But this is clearly no laughing matter; we are currently experiencing a YouTube culture that enables sexual assault on camera for video content and which euphemistically calls such an attack “a prank”, but (still) refuses to acknowledge the discursive existence of “sexual assault” and “rape”.
Ultimately, as a video-hosting service, YouTube can’t only cater to advertisers’ anxieties. Content creators must pressure the platform to start censoring sensitive topics solely on the basis of the context they are discussed in.
After all, censoring all sensitive topics regardless of context is not actually playing it safe. If the site has grown too much to listen to its own users, it is only a matter of time before a smaller but more attentive platform emerges and starts stealing away both creators and advertisers…
* Mexican slang for "dude".