New Media’s Power Immaturity
Sexual assault by popular new media stars is nothing new — and we are not stepping up.
“Social Media Personality Caught In Sex Scandal.” Quick — who’re we talking about?
Sam Pepper? Curtis Lepore? Alex Day? Carter Reynolds? It wouldn’t be surprising that anyone who reads this would have had a different answer. (And the answer was Craig Dillon.)
I’ve covered a lot of these, or presided over coverage. And now that I’m not in the business of news, but sticking with the business of creation, I feel a little freer in saying that we have, collectively, done a piss-poor job of enacting consequences against these men for their actions.
And we’re not getting better at dealing with it — the opposite, actually. If we take an honest look at how we’ve dealt with each subsequent abuse scandal in new media, our responses as a community have been getting weaker.
In 2012, Mike Lombardo solicited sexual pictures from an underaged girl. After the FBI were able to collect enough evidence to hit him with multiple counts, he’s now in the midst of a five-year prison stint for receiving child pornography.
In 2013, Ed “Eddplant” Blann admitted to an abusive relationship with a fan, pressuring her into sex “after I had been repeatedly told to stop.” (You know, rape.) He’s still posting on his YouTube channel, to very little attention whatsoever. I confess myself, I didn’t even know who the guy was until I researched the next two. Given that he’s pulling next to nothing in views, it seems the community has at least put him in YouTube purgatory.
Next, Tom Milsom, 2014. After admitting to a sexual relationship with an underaged girl who recounted a very abusive relationship, his career was summarily executed by the YouTube community. To my knowledge, he’s never posted since, and his personal page doesn’t even dare mention YouTube.
Around the same time, Alex Day got in trouble for similar emotional abuse in his relationships and making frequent unwanted advances, to which he squirmingly, half-admits to (a year later) and continues to turn it around to make him the victim. The response was merciless. He’s popped back up, but his career trajectory has been obliterated, and while he appears to enjoy 900,000+ subscribers, his actual viewcounts remain in the four-figure zone.
It should be noted that Ed, Tom and Alex were frequent collaborators.
Then we get to Sam Pepper, later 2014. After multiple accusations of sexual assault, including one that he filmed as a “social experiment” (read: profiting off of sexual harassment, amid erroneous claims that he received consent, which my former team covered extensively), he was dropped by the Collective, and YouTube yanked his ability to monetize — temporarily, and YouTube doesn’t really comment on that, so we have no way of knowing how long/how much he lost. Basically, he’s back up and running like he’s always been. So he doesn’t get to go to VidCon. He can assault people elsewhere.
And then there’s Curtis Lepore. Accused by then-girlfriend Jessi Smiles of raping her while she was asleep, recovering from a concussion. She got him arrested, charged, and ultimately he plead to felony assault in exchange of dropping the rape charges in 2014. That charge was in February of 2015 quietly, with little response, reduced to a misdemeanor, to which his management appears far too gleeful in mentioning. While his legal troubles mounted, and then were subsequently swept under the rug, he enjoyed more popularity than ever. He currently holds over 7.5 million followers. The only true consequence of his actions was the uproar within the YouTube community over Rainn Wilson’s decision to bring him on board for his Hollywood and Vine TV project, which Wilson (a member of the YouTube community) ultimately made the choice to drop Lepore from the project.
Carter Reynolds? We have video — a visibly and audibly uncomfortable young woman being pressured into oral sex. She stated repeatedly that she was not comfortable with it. (P.S., this is super illegal in California, where Carter and the young woman both live!) We have seen zero consequences. In fact, we’ve seen a trending topic #weloveyoucarter, with all his adoring, underage fans pledging love and support.
Underage fans that his half-brother pimps out to him. And even he kept his job.
I’ve skipped over a bunch — Craig Dillon, Luke Conard, Alexander Carpenter and too many others — but the point is that as our mediums mature, our responses to these things become more set in stone.
While the YouTube community has built up strong responses to these sorts of actions — largely due to its ability to have conversations, both through video responses and, yes, even the dreaded YouTube comments — Vine lacks this. And as a younger community, both in length of time existed and in the average age of users, it results in teenage girls jumping to defend their faves. It results in outcry by outsiders, but these abusers are still completely able to connect with their (largely underage) fanbase, without any hindrance whatsoever.
Christ, at one point, Lepore wrote: “ You wanna see me fail? Convince 4.1 million people to unfollow me.”
And even though the YouTube community has built a strong response apparatus, YouTube companies have not. And YouTube itself has not. And Vine most certainly has not. And as time has gone on, abusers have become more and more insulated from consequence.
Young viewers have no concept of how awful such abuse actually is, because they haven’t been taught that, yet. So they get past it and go back to loving their faves as quick as possible.
We’ve gone from actual prison time for sexual photographs, to a video of at least sexual assault being dismissed as a “mistake” by the very demographic he abuses. No word of any police action being taken.
People like Reynolds, like Lepore, feel invincible. And they’re not wrong. Unless the apparatus of their fame is threatened, they will march happily along.
Vine/Twitter can’t yet police what goes on their platforms, much less what their stars do off it. But if Vine were to, say, completely deactivate Reynolds’ account, which they reserve the right to do for any reason, or if companies took a harsher stance against these kids and hit them in the pocketbook, or if there were a more concerted effort by conventions and tours to teach parents how to keep their kids safe from abusers, how to identify and teach their kids that these are not role models, or…
I don’t think that today, we have that will. Maybe tomorrow.