On disguising cultural fears as “just a prank, bro” videos on YouTube

that maniacal face is not ‘shopped

The Internet, especially the YouTube community, is up in arms over a new Sam Pepper prank video. And in many ways, his latest video is more disturbing than his previous others because it plays into the current terrorist threat climate.

For those out of the loop, British YouTuber Pepper gained notoriety last year for his “prank” where he sexually harassed unsuspecting women on the street (he has a few like this), a scandal that was quickly followed by multiple teenagers coming forward and accusing him of sexual assault.

Despite all this, Pepper is still on YouTube, still making videos and still enraging people. In his latest, two best friends are kidnapped (one is in on the “joke”). After they’re duct-taped and thrown into the trunk of a car, one is pretend-killed in front of the other.

But wait, it’s just a prank, everyone!

The people of the web, however, are not laughing. No. They are frowning, shaking their heads and petitioning YouTube to remove the video (which the Google-owned company said they will not do.)

YouTube: Petition to YouTube to deactivate Sam Pepper’s channel — Sign the Petition! https://t.co/tsossjiO3a via@UKChange
— Gracie Francesca (@GraceFVictory) November 30, 2015

Consuming videotaped pranks has been a favorite pastime for decades now, going back to America’s Funniest Home Videos and Candid Camera before that. Because everyone loves a good prank, right? Pranks are goofy and silly and no one ever gets hurt (too badly).

But pranks in the age of YouTube and the web have taken on a life of their own, and there are now YouTubers who make a sizable income from their prank-focused channels — the pranking couple Prank Vs Prank (1.5 billion views) and legendary French prankster Remi Gaillard (1.5 billion views) are two of the more notable examples.

In this digital environment, a sub-genre of prank has emerged, known as “pranks gone wrong” videos. These videos get a staggering number of views, in part because they rely on some sort of violence. Some examples in this “pranks gone wrong” genre depict the kidnapping of best friends or children, girlfriends (or boyfriends) pretending to commit suicide to get back at their exes, and, in the case of Sam Pepper’s video, both a kidnapping and a fake death. The threat of violence, or seeing how someone responds in a violent situation, draws the viewer in and YouTubers are savvy to this base impulse.

It should be noted, too, that many of these videos aren’t pranks insomuch as they are culturally insensitive people being jerks. Oh, and in some cases, these pranks even constitute as crimes.

One noteworthy trend within the “pranks gone wrong” sub genre is the “pranks gone wrong in the hood” videos, which really took off in early 2014. These videos feature a white dude going up to a group of black guys “in the hood” and provoking them until violence is threatened, or actually unfolds. The white prankster provokes this desired violent reaction in a variety of ways, from asking something provocative, or actually transgressing into the physical space of the young black men.

This includes asking if the young black men “want the hands” (slang for if they want to fight), if they “want the D” or to “feel their balls” or if they want to buy a (water) gun. In one video from July, a young white man asks if he can throw a swing (seat) at a black youngster, who is not amused. “Do you know where you at right now?” the teen of color asks. “You in the hood, player.” When the white kid responds he is “just trying to be nice,” the black fellow again asks, “what you mean, be nice?” before he moves to deck him.

It’s easy to understand the black guy’s confusion: being nice never involved throwing swings at people, whether they are punches or actual swing seats.

Other more physical methods of getting the black guy to attack include anything from deliberately stepping on shoes to taking the man’s cellphone, his hat, and even attempting a mugging. When the prankster gets smacked down by the young men of color (who are now quite pissed), he screams out, “IT’S JUST A PRANK, BRO!”

As if attempted theft can so easily be mistaken for a prank.

Not surprisingly, these videos of black men threatening violence get hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views because through selective editing they play into the stereotype of the violent black man. The proliferation of these “pranks gone wrong in the hood” videos prompted Riceman, an Asian YouTuber, to make his own video titled “Are Black Guys Violent?

Needless to say, he didn’t get any violent reactions, but his video was viewed 6 million times.

Part of the reason why these videos are so compelling to mainstream audiences is that they play into a cultural fear. Black young men are still widely, irrationally, feared in our society, a by-product of systemic racism.

While Pepper’s prank is not “in the hood,” except in the literal sense where the kidnapped victim is hooded, his video does play into a fear of violence. In this particular case, fear of ISIL. It is not the black man the viewer (and prankee) fears in Pepper’s video, but a man dressed in all-black.

There are plenty of other kidnapping “prank gone wrong” videos but Pepper’s is unique in that it plays into the terrorist trope in setup, without explicitly mentioning it, and then follows through with an execution. At this point, everyone is familiar with the ISIL execution videos (and their tendency to kidnap), but to quickly recap: a terrorist in all black stands in front of a camera on a tripod, his tied-up victims before him. The terrorist proceeds to make gestures or some fanatical speech before brutally, even ceremoniously, executing his victims. The whole production is a performance for a global audience.

Pepper’s kidnapping video is very reminiscent of the ISIL execution videos. The kidnappers even similar masks, set their victims up in front of a camera, make violent gestures, and then pretend to shoot one of the friends in the head. The similarities to ISIL execution videos are not lost on the viewer. Even YouTube commentator and aspiring comedian Ethan Klein of h3h3 productions, who believes the whole video is fake (including the prank victim’s sobbing), made the connection to ISIL.

There’s no doubt Pepper makes his controversial videos to further boost his income — according to statistics monitoring site SocialBlade, he makes anywhere from $500 to eight thousand dollars a month from ads that run on his YouTube channel. But even if the whole prank was fake and the prank victim was in on it the whole time, making and profiting off a video that is clearly inspired by terrorist videos is socially insensitive, at best. At its worst, his prank video makes light of actual execution victims of ISIL.

And it’s important to remember YouTube doesn’t exist in a vacuum — teenagers and young people consume most of their media content through YouTube. Given how much media attention Pepper’s video has gotten, the fake kidnapping and execution prank runs the very real risk of inspiring copycats.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris two weeks ago, the threat of ISIL has become very real to many people, even in the US. We saw this fear when multiple US governors tried to ban Syrian refugees from their States, despite no refugee carrying out any of the attacks. We even saw this fear in Mike Huckabee’s nonsensical rhetoric advocating for this ban. Huckabee’s words may be wrapped in folksy aphorisms about Muslims and falafel, but it is these aphorisms that are dangerous because they mask a fear-driven conversation — that all Muslims are dangerous.

Pepper’s video is unnecessarily hurtful because it continues the pattern of characterizing the other, the foreigner, the man with different color skin, as a violent person. The tension over his video (and from the “pranks in the hood gone wrong” videos) happens because they reinforce and magnify stereotypes.

And last time I checked, what ISIL wants more than anything is for us to fear each other.

A version of this article first appeared on the TouchVision TV website, December 2015