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David Dobrik and YouTube’s distorted culture of consent

Something is extremely wrong with the way vloggers perpetuate the idea of consent.

David Dobrik/YouTube
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

If you asked an average teenager who their favorite influencer was at any point over the past few years, there’s a pretty high likelihood they’d say it was David Dobrik. Dobrik, 24, is a YouTuber with 18 million subscribers, best known for his slice-of-life vlogs where he parties with his fellow quasi-famous friends and pulls pranks with celebrities, resulting in videos with bait-y, all-caps titles like “CAN’T BELIEVE THIS HAPPENED (EMOTIONAL)” (as far as I know this is not an actual title, but it could be). It’s not difficult to pinpoint what made him so beloved: Dobrik plays the role of the approachable guy who’s buddies with all the popular kids but still seems like a good person, the Nick Carraway of the Gen Z influencer world.

That is, until you start rewatching some of Dobrik’s videos. After a while, his “Vlog Squad” could look less like an organic group of friends and more like a cast of characters suffering from severe Stockholm Syndrome; the “pranks” Dobrik and his crew pull start seeming more like exercises in stretching the limits of consent. And over the past year or so, he’s faced far more serious allegations than general YouTube-style tastelessness.

Last June, YouTuber Seth Francois spoke about the racist situations he was forced into as the only Black member of the Vlog Squad, from being the butt of jokes about watermelon to blackface. Then in February, he discussed the time that he was “pranked” into making out with a man he didn’t consent to; he says he now considers it sexual assault. Also in February, former Vlog Squad member Nick Keswani revealed on a podcast how he was continually mocked for his dwarfism and treated like “a punching bag” during his time with the group.

The most damning allegation yet came last week, when Insider published a story of a woman who says she was raped by Vlog Squad member Dom Zeglaitis, a.k.a. “Durte Dom,” during a video shoot. In 2018, college student “Hannah” (a pseudonym) went with a group of friends to an apartment to film a video with the crew, and what unfolded was an all-too-familiar scene: Hannah, who was 20 at the time, says that she became so incapacitated with alcohol supplied by Vlog Squad members that she could not consent to sex. She and a friend went into a room with Zeglaitis, where he allegedly had sex with her while other members of the Vlog Squad listened outside. The resulting video — entitled “SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE PLAYED WITH FIRE!!!” and portrayed as a threesome plot — was deleted after Hannah objected to it, but not before it reached 5 million views.

Hannah describes feeling like she had to play a part for the sake of the Vlog Squad’s content. “It was very much an environment where it felt like saying ‘no’ was not OK,” she told Insider. “It felt like from the moment we came there was an expectation that they were doing us a favor and we had to give them content. They were verbally, like, ‘Why aren’t you guys being fun? Do something sort of sexy.’”

It’s not the first time the Vlog Squad has been described this way. Francois, the Black former member, said in a podcast that he was always fearful of being seen as a curmudgeon if he wasn’t willing to be game for a video. “It was an unwritten thing where you see a pattern of people saying, ‘Yo, I’m uncomfortable with this,’” he said. “All of a sudden they disappear and they’re not in videos anymore.” The reason it sounds familiar is because it’s applicable to nearly every toxic workplace in any industry: The risk of potential exclusion is made out to be worth the price of staying silent.

But there’s something unique to YouTube culture, where the idea of consent is inherently blurry. I’m reminded of the recent conversation I had with former Vlog Squad member Trisha Paytas, where she told me about how she’d been in a relationship with fellow member Jason Nash on and off for about two years, but the terms of the relationship were never defined. Instead, she was publicly referred to as his girlfriend in videos but was never quite sure how much weight the term actually held. It’s a common arrangement for vloggers who make content about their lives, but who embellish (or shield) certain aspects for the sake of building a consumable narrative. Ultimately, Paytas says she was pushed out of the group and her relationship when she was no longer useful for the squad.

All of this gets lost on camera, though. “It seemed like I had a super-fun night with these famous vloggers, basically, which is not what happened,” Hannah said of the video she ended up in. “Every single person that I know is messaging me, ‘You were in David Dobrik’s vlog, that’s so cool.’ Or ‘Oh my God, I saw the vlog you were in.’”

I also think there’s a connection to an extremely popular couple’s recent announcement. Mike and Kat Stickler, a married couple who have 5.4 million followers on TikTok, tearfully announced their separation this week. To anyone who watched their lighthearted skits and Dobrik-esque vlogs (there was plenty of “pranking my wife!” content), the news came as a shock, yet in a deeper dive, the underlying tensions of the marriage could theoretically become visible: in their impressions of one another or their passive-aggressive sketches about married life.

It’s impossible to deduce what led to the problems in their marriage (and it’s none of our business anyway), but when people’s normal lives are turned into consumable storytelling with clear narratives that allow for zero nuance, those around them can end up getting hurt. No one should feel like they have to play a role they never signed up for — especially not for someone else’s clout.

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