YouTube’s First Big Scandal Was Cancel Culture Done Right — What Happened?
In 2014, women accused more than 40 YouTubers of sexual harassment and misconduct. Now they’re “disgusted” by what cancel culture has become.
By the time I’ve finished writing this sentence, another person will be cancelled on YouTube. At least that’s what it feels like in 2020, when YouTubers are running their own reality shows and need to keep the views coming even at the cost of their personal reputations. As Jezebel documented last year, there are whole channels dedicated to unpacking YouTube drama and letting you know who is cancelled and by whom. But before Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau broke up, before “BeauTubers” James Charles and Tati Westbrook made a series of somber videos about each other, before Shane Dawson was accused of doing sexual things to his cat, before Olivia Jade had to leave YouTube following her college-admission scandal, and before Logan Paul filmed a suicide victim in a forest, YouTube was not yet of interest to the general public, and one of its biggest cancellations happened entirely inside its own walls.
In March of 2014, the community brought forth widespread sexual harassment allegations, and it wasn’t because the New York Times published an expose, or an open secret had finally been acknowledged. Young female YouTubers and fans came forward in videos and on Tumblr to accuse what amounted to over 40 male YouTube creators, many of them musicians, of sexual misconduct. In most cases, men in their early 20s with predominantly female followings were accused of taking advantage of their power and influence to inappropriately interact with their fans, with allegations ranging from emotional abuse to rape.
This was before there was a term like “cancel culture” to succinctly explain what was going on — and good thing, too. Otherwise its trajectory from authentic movement to the now eye roll-worthy “cancel culture” catchall may have been expedited. But this reckoning in 2014, aside from being the first major instance of YouTube drama, according to three prominent members of the community to whom I spoke for this piece, also marked one of the first successful ways an online community self-policed its own predators.
“[Speaking out] felt imperative because we were such a small group,” Hayley G. Hoover, who started making YouTube videos in 2005 and was deeply embedded in the community at the time of the reckoning, told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. “People were physically together at events and spending their whole lives intertwined with each other. If something like this came up at a school, it would be obviously wrong not to address it and try and fix it. Whereas now YouTube is just reflective of the real world. It's not a microcosm anymore.”
Things were so insular that Hoover had friends step forward as survivors and friends on the receiving end of accusations. The community was in crisis. In a masterpost that started on Tumblr and is preserved on Wordpress, an anonymous user began documenting accusations against what amounted to 43 different male creators in the YouTube and online community.
It started with Tom Milsom, Mike Lombardo, and Alex Day, all musicians on YouTube. In 2014, a Tumblr user came forward to accuse Milsom of coercing her into sex during their relationship. She claims she was 15 at the time; he 21 (Milsom has never directly responded to the allegation).That same year, Lombardo was sentenced to five years in prison on child pornography charges after pleading guilty to soliciting explicit photographs and videos from 11 underage fans, and others came forward with their own stories following his conviction. Day was accused of sexual manipulation, coercion, and emotional manipulation, and had enough accusations and updates to warrant an entirely different Tumblr dedicated to the ordeal titled Alex Day - Shitstorm. (Day has denied ever having a sexual relationship with anyone under the age of consent or engaging in romantic or sexual activity without someone’s consent).
“I felt kind of like I could breathe for the first time in a long time,” an accuser who posted her experience on Tumblr and wishes to remain anonymous told Refinery29. “And I received an immense amount of support from people both on Tumblr and on YouTube.”
While Tumblr still exists today, five years ago it became the preferable platform for accusers to come forward. It allowed them to remain anonymous if they chose, succinctly express their thoughts in writing, and shield them from the vulnerability of laying out their trauma in front of a camera. Plus, Tumblr’s sharing mechanisms allowed news of the accusations to spread like wildfire.
“Tumblr...felt like this very matriarchal society on the internet,” Hoover explained. “It also felt more safe because you weren't seeing people's casual reactions. It was very much like, this is the group of people who are going to listen to what I'm saying and consider it rather than shout out their feelings.”
The accusations grew to the point that makeshift authority figures had to step forward to take whatever executive action was possible. John and Hank Green, members of the popular channel Vlogbrothers, founder of DFTBA records (a record label affiliated with a handful of accused YouTubers), creators of VidCon, and over 10 years older than the typical age of the YouTubers wrapped up in the scandals, issued their own statements and dropped any of the accused YouTubers affiliated with their record company.
“My only consolation is that I honestly believe these issues are coming to light in this community not because they are more common, but because we are more empowered to speak out and not hide from or cover them up,” Hank wrote on Tumblr following the accusations against Milsom. “And that’s excellent, because you cannot fix a problem if you do not face a problem.” The Greens could not be reached for further comment.
Melissa Anelli, who ran Harry Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron and published Harry, A History (much of the YouTube community wrapped up in this scandal was part of the Harry Potter fandom), attempted to get to the root of the issue by advocating for greater change in the dynamics between creators and their fans, and the power imbalance that comes with it.
“When this all went down I joined the advisory board of Uplift Together, which does great work trying to promote positive fan/creator relationships,” she wrote in an email. “The HP Alliance also has a Positive Fandom project. There have definitely been advancements in the conversation, in awareness, in spreading the definition of consent.”
As for YouTube itself, the platform had no comment about this specific incident, but pointed me to its updated harassment policy. These updates, however, only refer to behavior that takes place on the platform, rather than as a result of it.
A YouTuber who is technically cancelled, but puts out a video to several million views talking about it, is laughing that cancellation all the way to the bank.
The accused creators were, to the best of everyone’s abilities, cancelled. There was little in the way of real-world consequences. Only two arrests were made in connection to the slew of accusations, although some police investigations were launched and ultimately cleared. And only Lombardo faced criminal charges. In 2014, he was sentenced to five years in prison for exchanging explicit images with underage female fans. As for Day, he eventually left YouTube but denied key elements of the allegations and repeatedly tried to return to the platform with new videos. As of now, his channel has been wiped save for select music projects and a video he made about Lost. He wrote an ebook in 2018 titled Living and Dying on the Internet about his experience getting cancelled on YouTube that is now available for $0 on Amazon (you can find it yourself if you think it’s worth the page view). Milsom left the public eye shortly after firing off a few tweets that seemingly disputed the allegations, but returned in 2019 to post a vague video titled “An Apology.” He expanded on it in the comments.
“It took [my accuser] a lot of courage and conviction to redefine a relationship that had ended a year or so previously as an abusive situation,” he wrote. “By opening up about this and telling my side of the story, I hope not to avoid criticism or responsibility for my actions, but instead I hope to shed light on the circumstances in which abuse happens, particularly within power structures like this, and help people identify it earlier on be they a victim or a perpetrator.”
Milsom and a lawyer for Lombardo did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment. Alex Day could not be reached for comment.
Besides those three, many of the accused came back. However, the list stands preserved as a marker to the past, as well as a precursor to what was to come. In 2015, the serious, dramatic style of video that was often made by those creators and fans during 2014 became a meme, and the trope of “YouTube apology videos” persists to this day, emboldened in its absurdity with each passing scandal. Each subsequent YouTube feud is further tainted with increasing levels of performance to both please the YouTube algorithm and top whatever feud preceded it. Future generations could have used the 2014 reckoning as an example to follow, but instead it can feel like the accusers’ hard work to maintain YouTube as a safe place was for nothing.
“I'm personally pretty disgusted by it,” the anonymous accuser explained. “I think it cheapens a lot of the real problems and real, very serious upsetting concerns...If I were to come out and talk about this stuff now, I would, guaranteed, have some terrible, terrible responses that would make me feel just awful about it all and maybe regret saying anything in the first place.”
Right now, two Mukbang YouTubers, Stephanie Soo and Nikocado Avocado, are embroiled in a public battle, exchanging long, intense, public YouTube videos back and forth about Soo’s claims that she was made to feel unsafe by Nikocado Avocado and accusing him of crossing boundaries. The entire timeline of accusations is playing out in a structured, manufactured, entertainment-driven way indicative of this current era of YouTube. Even accusations of inappropriate behavior have to be made with the audience in mind, and in some cases this drama benefits creators’ channels.
“There's definitely a portion of people who are watching not to be educated or informed, but to eat popcorn and call the plays and have some good schadenfreude,” Anelli said, which makes sense when the gravitas of these initial accusations is now similarly applied to fights about make-up brands and possibly-staged relationships.
Six years later, of those named in the initial post, around ten have been active on YouTube the past year. The rest have, for the most part, faded into obscurity — but this may only be because not many eyeballs were on them in the first place. The more prominent these reckonings have become, the less effective the cancellation seems to be, because now everyone is watching. The only real way to cancel someone is to deprive them of the resources for success. The original 2014 reckoning had the ability to overcome the size of the accused creators’ fanbases and slowly push them out of the public eye without any rubbernecking from the rest of the internet because it was done by the community, for the community. But now, with more of the world watching YouTube, these reckonings draw the attention that allows the accused to still thrive.
“A YouTuber who is technically cancelled, but puts out a video to several million views talking about it, is laughing that cancellation all the way to the bank,” Anelli said. “So what does it even mean?”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call theRAINN Sexual Assault Hotlineat 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).