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Logan Paul, and the toxic YouTube prank culture that created him, explained

Paul’s decision to post footage of a suicide victim stems from many popular pranksters’ “film first and think later” ethos.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

YouTube star Logan Paul, a popular vlogger from a family of popular vloggers, drew a massive backlash on Monday and Tuesday for posting a video showing a dead body he stumbled upon in Japan's notorious "suicide forest."

The video, which Paul uploaded on December 31 and ultimately deleted late on January 1, chronicles a visit by Paul and a few companions to Aokigahara Forest, located on the northwestern side of Mt. Fuji. Upon seeing the body, Paul calls out, “Yo, are you alive?” and then, “Are you fucking with us?” He then continues to film his reaction to the discovery, complete with laughter and joking, which he later explains is his way of trying to cope with the shock of the situation.

While Paul added a preface to the video before posting it in which he gravely insisted that “this is not clickbait,” he also advised viewers to “Buckle the fuck up, because you’re never gonna see a video like this again!” and used a shot of the body for the video’s promotional thumbnail.

Despite YouTube’s policies prohibiting violent or gory content, the video quickly went viral on the site, reaching No. 10 on its trending list even in the face of protest and outcry on YouTube and other social media platforms.

Paul’s video amassed over six million views before he deleted it and posted an apology on Twitter, in which he said that he didn’t post the shocking footage for views but “because I thought I could make a positive ripple on the internet” and “raise awareness for suicide and suicide prevention.”

However, on Tuesday afternoon, he posted a second apology on YouTube, calling his decision to post the video a “severe and continuous lapse in my judgment.”

On the one hand, the outrage caused by Paul’s video and his subsequent apology follows a familiar and predictable pattern of any typical internet controversy: a public figure screws up, becomes the target of backlash, and expresses some degree of remorse.

On the other hand, the video has fueled an extensive debate about the limitations and lawlessness of YouTube’s prank culture, and raised questions about why YouTube failed to remove the content from its trending videos list.

Paul’s decision to post the video in the first place casts a harsh light on the showy, often deliberately invasive, self-aggrandizement that has come to define prank culture on YouTube. Up until this weekend at least, that shtick has not been associated with any one person so much as appearing as a morally gray cloud that hangs over the genre’s many, many participants. And ultimately, the pranks implicate YouTube itself for taking a backseat in refereeing its top creators.

Logan Paul is known for good-humored, but shocking, pranks

Logan Paul is a popular vlogger from Ohio who gained early fame on Vine while he was still in college, mainly through his prank videos. By 2015, when he was just 20 years old, Paul had amassed over 8 million followers on the now-defunct video platform and, as Business Insider put it, was “already famous by the standards of millions of 14-year-old girls.”

Like many Vine stars, Paul eventually carried his fanbase with him to YouTube, branching out and channeling his success into lucrative endorsements as well as TV and film appearances. His primary YouTube channel, Logan Paul Vlogs, has over 15 million subscribers.

Paul’s YouTube fame is, in part, a family affair. As he gained more followers on both Vine and YouTube, so did his younger brother Jake Paul, who is two years his junior. Jake followed in Logan’s footsteps, launching his own successful vlogging career on the same two platforms, and later went on to star on the Disney Channel series Bizaardvark. The two brothers have appeared in one another’s videos, and their parents also frequently make cameos, having cultivated their own sizable social media followings.

Most of the family’s videos consist of mild PG-rated humor, though Logan Paul has been accused of racism in the past, and Jake Paul briefly came under fire in November 2017 for allegedly bullying two of his regular collaborators into quitting his video-making team.

YouTube’s prank culture emphasizes shock value. That almost certainly contributed to Paul’s decision to post the Aokigahara video.

Prank videos — typically starring white men or young boys — comprise an entire genre on YouTube, one so popular that even creators who’ve become famous for other things often participate in guest pranks and viral prank challenges.

Pranking first became popular on Vine. Because of its six-second time limit, Vine was the perfect platform for short public stunts — usually involving unwitting members of the public who had no idea they were being pranked while the camera was rolling. The most successful pranks often mimicked many of the largely nonconsensual techniques of Pick-Up Artist culture, as applied to public stunts. And if they were mean-spirited, cruel, or at times even physically threatening, so much the better.

Compilations of Vine pranks soon proliferated YouTube, and eventually the pranksters themselves did too, with viral pranksters–turned–YouTube celebrities like Cameron Dallas, Nash Grier, and in some cases entire ensembles like the Janoskians all gaining success as vloggers and comedians.

Like most of the best and worst prank videos, the Paul brothers’ work demonstrates a willingness to humiliate themselves in public as well as a tendency to “observe” other humans in the wild, like a David Attenborough nature documentary gone off the rails. Yet the pair has also raised plenty of hackles in their pursuit of visual gags.

Logan, for example, recorded a (since-deleted) video with controversial YouTube creator Sam Pepper in which he lassoed women and forcibly pulled them in as a “pick-up” method. Jake has taken the brunt of the media’s disgust over the brothers’ hijinks; Deadspin dubbed him the “worst person on earth” after his pranks drew fire from his Beverly Hills neighbors last year; the New York Times branded him a “reality villain for the YouTube generation.”

But it’s Logan who seems to have taken the desensitized aspects of prank culture — which, at their core, often include surprising or shocking people, capturing their “raw” real-time reactions on video — a step too far.

In his apology for posting footage of the dead body in Aokigahara, Paul said that due to his hectic production schedule, “it’s easy to get caught up in the moment without fully weighing the possible ramifications.”

It might be difficult for anyone not immersed in YouTube prank culture to understand how a video of a suicide victim could register with Paul and his production team — a group of young camera operators and stunt assistants, several of whom also posted and then later deleted their own reaction videos to finding the body — as just another moment in a parade of potentially viral moments.

The response of many has been, essentially: How did they not realize that posting that footage was extremely disrespectful, not to mention exploitative and potentially triggering!

But it’s also hard to overstate just how motivated the most successful YouTube creators are to continually produce endless new content, which can be extremely lucrative — or how popular pranks actually are on YouTube.

Searching YouTube for “prank” yields about 33,300,000 results, the most popular of which has over 110 million views. Despite being only the 51st most popular creator on YouTube, according to SocialBlade, Paul’s monetization of his videos bring him anywhere from $3,000 to a staggering $50,000 per clip.

So even though Paul emphasized in the intro to the Aokigahara video that he had demonetized this particular video and that it wasn’t clickbait, later reiterating in his Twitter apology that he hadn’t posted the Aokigahara video for “views,” it’s been difficult for many to see the video any other way.

As the Washington Post noted, Jake Paul’s catchphrase — “It’s everyday, bro” — references the frequency with which he and his family churn out video content of his daily life.

With so much riding on each video he produces, and a calculated interest in capturing so much of his own life on screen, it’s not unexpected that his videos range from the personal (“WE THREW MY PREGNANT ASSISTANT A BABY SHOWER!”) to the dangerously foolhardy (“JUMPING TWO SPEEDING LAMBORGHINIS BACK TO BACK! **don’t attempt**”).

Somewhere in the Venn diagram between prank culture’s emphasis on public invasiveness and edgy risk-taking, and Paul’s love of personal real-time footage and drive to produce content quickly, the Aokigahara video was born.

If Paul’s video drew immediate backlash, so did YouTube’s lack of response

As horrifying as Paul’s video was for many people, equally disturbing was the fact that YouTube somehow allowed the video to trend, allegedly for over 24 hours, despite both a policy banning such graphic content and vocal social media outcry demanding that the video be removed from the site’s trending list.

Complicating the anger for many was lingering outrage over YouTube’s problematic tendency to algorithmically flag inoffensive content simply because it contains references to LGBTQ subjects. Though YouTube made alterations to its automated content classification system after last year’s controversy over the issue, problems with the system have persisted. Given that it appeared to be DOA when presented with a video containing graphic content as its promotional thumbnail, lots of people were displeased:

In the end, YouTube didn’t actually take direct action against Paul’s Aokigahara video — it disappeared from the site’s trending list only when Paul finally deleted it himself. And while the site did issue a statement regarding Paul’s video to YouTube creator Philip DeFranco, the statement did not address the site’s failure to apply its content policies in time to remove the video from the trending list:

YouTube has not responded to a request from Vox for comment. But Buzzfeed reporter Davey Alba reported on Twitter that a spokesperson for the site told her that it had applied a strike — a temporary flag on a user’s account which can accrue and result in a permanent ban (as in “three strikes and you’re out”) — to Paul’s account.

But even if the strike has been applied, it will likely have very little impact on a YouTube creator as successful as Paul, who has made his name on precisely the kind of viral-ready, thoughtless actions that drew him into the Aokigahara Forest.

YouTube’s deep culture of veneration among fans creates an insular, often accountability-proof bubble around its biggest stars (see also: PewDiePie). When those stars have earned large fortunes by creating content that violates the personal space and consent of other members of the public, it’s hardly a surprise that one of them would eventually end up posting footage a suicide victim’s dead body.

In his apology video, Paul said, “I don’t expect to be forgiven — I’m simply here to apologize.” But among the nearly 700,000 comments that the apology video has amassed in the last 24 hours, support from his most fervent fans remains strong. As DiFranco noted, Paul likely won’t lose too many followers in response to his behavior; rather, the onus is on YouTube to take meaningful action to prevent videos like this from being shared on the site.

On Wednesday afternoon, Paul’s apology video was the No. 1 video on YouTube.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Logan Paul as the creator of the “It’s everyday, bro” catchphrase. It is Jake Paul who created and associates with it.

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