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Corpse Clickbait For Kids: How YouTube Mishandled A Suicide Scandal

2018 got off to a bleak start for the YouTube community. This story involves Logan Paul, one of two brothers who are among the most prolific characters on the site. With their videos frequently getting 10s of million hits, each day they get far more views than the vast majority of TV programs worldwide, though their audience is largely in the impressionable “tween” demographic.

It’s the nature of the beast that their output involves many obnoxious displays of ego, materialism, vulgarity, pranks and general goofing around, but at the turn of the year this approach was taken several leagues too far.

On a trip to Japan, Paul and his entourage decided to do some camping in Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji, also known as the “Suicide Forest” due to a sad frequency with which people go there to take their lives.

Paul’s surface intent was to have a bit of fun with the idea of the forest being haunted. There was also a shallow after-the-fact claim about trying to “raise awareness”. The camping ruse was tasteless enough in itself but it can’t have been too unpredictable when the group happened upon a genuine hanged suicide victim. This may have been a hope or “Wow-what if?” anticipation of the group.

Their behaviour on the discovery was bizarre, grossly disrespectful and thus deeply problematic in ways that shouldn’t need spelling out. Although the original video has been taken down, it was of course re-uploaded and plenty of that behaviour remains on the site via other channels, generally accompanied by reaction and commentary. All this remaining footage has the victim’s body edited out for obvious reasons of decency. Apart from blurring the face, the Logan Paul video didn’t bother with that approach.

Post-production added music effects, drone shots, general clowning, some more “serious” pieces to camera and paint-by-numbers disclaimers with hotline numbers. Shots of the corpse, including close-ups, remained in the edit and one was used for the thumbnail. Paul pre-hyped the video which, remember, will have appeared in the feeds of millions of children.

YouTube commentators responded with widespread and understandable anger. The original video didn’t stay up long and Paul put out a couple of apologies of varying credibility. All this is easy enough to find on the site if you care to look.

Those are the basics of the story, though there are many more problems beyond basic decency and the treatment of mental health issues. That a narcissist and possible sociopath sought “clickbait” attention with barrel-scraping antics is sadly no big shock. Anyone who thinks that kind of thing is an impediment to success can’t have noticed the result of the last US Presidential Election.

But a broader media point is how YouTube handled this case. The Google owned company can be very touchy in regards to “family friendly issues”, not least since a swathe of big-name advertisers withdrew their business earlier last year on discovering their ads were being placed alongside violent, sweary or sexualised content, including uploads from terror groups. This came to be known as the “Adpocalpyse”.

This is where the independent media angle comes in because prior to this, many political commentators of all stripes were able to at least partially fund their operations via advertising income shared with YouTube. In the months since then you may have seen a lot more appeals for viewer funding, separate sponsorship and pushing of merchandise to make up for hefty drops from ad income, often in the order of 90%.

It has emerged that Paul’s “Suicide Forest” video was flagged, reviewed (seemingly by humans) and left up on site without even an age restriction. It was listed as “trending” and garnered millions of views before being taken down.

Thus, to start the year, YouTube have been caught out pushing content of a suicide corpse to children. They have since put out a bland and non explanatory statement but it was Paul who ended up taking the video down, not YouTube.

Meanwhile, other YouTubers have had strikes against them and videos removed for discussing the original content and showing parts of it.

The challenge of policing over 400 hours of video shared every minute is extremely daunting and YouTube don’t have a clearly defined role as a publisher rather than a platform.

However, Google / YouTube have exposed a gross hypocrisy in their favoritism towards one of their golden boys. They have jeopardised their own reputation and potential funding for independent media and commentary.

YouTube is a growing source of entertainment and information, we need to be aware that beneath the surface things are very far from perfect.

For more on the problems of relying too much on large social media platforms for news and commentary, check out this Media Fund video.

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