Not a week goes by without the Paul brothers being involved in some kind of controversy, and it is by design — the two Viners-turned-YouTubers have perfected the art of drawing ire only to feed their brand, and ultimately their clout. Some may be puzzled by this dynamic — after all, legacy media used to punish even the slightest infractions by stripping culprits of much-coveted social capital, but the age of internet fame has turned things completely upside down.
What gave rise to such an environment can’t be separated from a long-overdue conversation on the ills of YouTube culture in particular, which seems to prize above all a facade of nonchalant lawlessness, much to the chagrin of the platform holders. It was Logan Paul’s vlog of the Aokigahara forest at Mount Fuji — the infamous ‘Suicide Forest’ — that instigated a rule change about offensive content whose ramifications are still felt to this day — other creators have contributed their lot to the fire since, but the Paul brothers represent a unique challenge as their relationship to the platform rests on a very fragile thread, one whose integrity shall meet its ultimate test if yet another massive blunder was to occur.
To have such a tenuous relationship with a business partner isn’t exactly ideal for YouTube, but it wouldn’t have been the case if the platform didn’t adopt such a hands-off approach from everything that gets uploaded on it, forcing it to make carve-outs for every piece of problematic content that still contributes to their bottom-line, but misaligns with their more immediate interests. To put it simply, YouTube has gotten used to reacting to controversy until ad sellers sound the alarm, and it is coincidentally the worst feature of the Paul brothers doing well… much of anything — given their status of internet celebrity, their misjudgements find constant refuge in media, and so far, their most flagrant has just hit the news pages, and it’s very bad.
So far only Logan Paul has been mentioned in specificity, but his brother Jake is arguably even more of a troublemaker — an early pioneer of the pranking genre, the man made a name for himself earlier this summer when he was charged on account of looting in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, but he’s apparently not had enough attention yet. His latest outing is that of COVID-denialism in an interview with the Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, displaying an utter lack of shame in the process. When asked about his stance on lockdown, the chronic pranker didn’t have much tact to spare. “It’s time for us to open up. Obviously it’s a controversial subject, but it’s time for our nation to open up and go back to normal,” he told Stern. “This is the most detrimental thing to our society. COVID cases are at less than 1 percent, and I think the disease is a hoax.”
There’s not much to rebuke about Jake’s statement that hasn’t been done before, but it’s important to highlight YouTube’s early complicity in allowing much of what the Paul brothers uploaded under the cover of indiscriminate fairness. “YouTube presents its platform as democratic; anyone can upload and contribute to it. But it simultaneously treats enormously popular creators like Paul differently, because they command such massive audiences,” wrote WIRED’s Louise Matsakis. “It’s helpful that the platform has baseline standards for what is considered appropriate […] But a positive step forward would be to develop a more transparent process, one centered around open discussion about what should and shouldn’t be allowed, on something like a public moderation forum.”
Further spoiling the pot is the YouTube algorithm, which promotes content with the highest rates of engagement and retention regardless of adverse social consequences, something the platform has not shied away from protecting in the past. “It isn’t inherently awful that YouTube uses AI to recommend video for you, because if the AI is well-tuned it can help you get what you want, this would be amazing. But the problem is that the AI isn’t built to help you get what you want — it’s built to get you addicted to YouTube. Recommendations were designed to waste your time,” founder of the AlgoTransparency project Guillaume Chaslot told The Next Web. “We’ve got to realize that YouTube recommendations are toxic and it perverts civic discussion. Right now the incentive is to create this type of borderline content that’s very engaging, but not forbidden.”
Judgement has however already been rendered on the Paul brothers and they’ve been deemed harmless and marginal enough that what they say doesn’t hold much weight, but the more their actions remain unsupervised, the cushier a position they have among YouTube’s ideological fringe — this wouldn’t be cause for alarm under normal circumstances, but given the massive platform they have and the overwhelming amount of young impressionable kids ingesting their verbal sewage on a regular basis, things ought to change.
Where do they start then? Given the present public health risks, the perfect course of action would be to deny Jake Paul (and his brother if he so chooses to enable him) any public platform until he shows a bit more sensitivity to the plight of a grieving nation. If that doesn’t happen, the far-right’s loony bin is more-than-welcome to subsume them into their construct so that their obscenities are at least easier to dismiss as pure drivel. For now though, the Paul brothers still firmly occupy a zone of sheer epistemic haze, where their beliefs mold the shape of what’s most-controversial, much to every responsible human being’s dismay.
If it sounds like my words are policing too much of the Paul brothers’ propos, it’s because they absolutely are — internet platforms could’ve made the choice to uplift the voices of those most-measured among us, but instead they settled for vile and left the media to shovel after their every sludge. This may have worked on legacy entertainers, but journalists aren’t sole exactors of public responsibility — they need an establishment behind them that is willing to put its foot down when pressure gets high, and not hide behind platitudes of free speech, especially when the lives of everyone are at stake.
This certainly won’t be the last we’ll hear of the Paul brothers, but one can only hope that our public discourse is better-equipped to principally discard their claims until they make amends for past sins. For now, skepticism should be the primary mode of engagement with their future claims; if they otherwise want to be taken seriously, they’ll have to start acting like it.