YouTuber and Big Brother contestant, Sam Pepper, hit the headlines last year following a hyper-realistic video that saw two fellow YouTubers – Colby and Sam – appear to face a brutal rooftop execution at gunpoint, in a prank kidnapping.
‘KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK’ has already been watched more than 9.5 million times, and as many as 114,000 users have left their concerns in the comments section. Notably, the feedback function has been disabled.
The footage is shocking and emotionally distressing. Would you be surprised to hear, despite its aggression, that it achieved wide-reaching global coverage and 634.5K shares?
On 1 December 2015, the hacking activist group, Anonymous, threatened Pepper with its ’wrath’ if he did not remove his YouTube account with 24 hours. A petition gained 200,000 signatures in support of the removal, but unphased Pepper revealed his channel was worth $1.5million, and if haters could stump up the cash, they could push the ‘delete’ button for themselves.
As of 4th January 2016, the video and YouTuber remains online abiding by YouTube’s community standards. But, balancing the desire for accolade and virality, and respecting your digital community, is a debate we should continue to have this year. Let’s look at what made Pepper’s killing campaign so horribly noteworthy and what we can learn from it.
If subscribers are familiar with Sam’s work, the clue is arguably in the title, however a new viewer is given no warning as to the extremity of footage, nor the thinking space to opt out ahead of the graphic scenes. Pepper introduces the horrifying scenario – that sees one young man slaughtered in front of the other – as if he’d impishly hidden a whoopie cushion in their armchair. You’re hooked as the story unfolds, but you don’t know what you’re watching until it’s much too late.
Pepper’s choice of title, ‘KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK’, is click bait. However, ‘kill’ can have duplicitous meaning, especially when paired with milder terms, such as ‘best friend’ and ‘prank’. For example, it can also indictae hilarity, or even finishing a huge meal. The phrasing implies it is the bloodshed definition, but the publisher and demographic of his audience would suggest otherwise…
Searching ‘killing’ on YouTube and Google unsurprisingly yields results that are distressing, graphic and violent. But, this is a prank, right? Yes, it’s just a laugh. This is not a video designed to be found when searching ‘killing’. Except, that’s exactly where it does appear, alongside real news and real danger featuring cruelty, mutilation, and war-torn environments. So, is Pepper being considerate of his digital community, warning them of the violent content, or is it a satire laughing at terrorism, and taking a stand? Or, was it an extreme concept, thought up to gain mutual clickthroughs, likes and subscriptions (and thus, more ad revenue) for Pepper, Colby, and Sam? The jury’s out on that one.
While browsers aren’t likely to search ‘killing’ on YouTube or Google, it’s likely they will have found the video either via subscription, or a share on a social platform such as Facebook or Twitter. Seeding the content on social will have diminished the power of the word ‘killing’, making the decision to watch a less conflicting one. We subscribe, and expect to be protected by the community standard of behaviour. If the video is in your Facebook newsfeed, it’s safe to watch.
Many have watched this video, lulled into a false sense of security by social networks, duped by misleading language and Pepper’s casual introduction, However (and this is controversial, forgive us), thanks to his killing campaign, a digital demographic protected by parental locks and filtering on the news, experienced a window into the seriousness of terror.
The overwhelming emphatic response and resounding distaste from his subscribers is evidence that digital communities are compassionate, and they expect vloggers to respect them as viewers. They have a social responsibility, just as brands do. Brands can learn a lot from the Sam Pepper fallout.
But, don’t take our word for it. Responsibility is on the agenda of influencers already, so let’s look to the Pepper’s peers for their perspective. YouTuber Olan Rogers tells his fellow video publishers to ‘have some integrity’ in his video called JUST BE YOU, and advises that as a collective, influencers should treat their subscribers ‘like they really matter…and to please be honest because people connect with authenticity’. And, we couldn’t agree more. Read more about how to craft authentic and appropriate content for your audience in our blog post ‘Keep video content close to your heart’.
Meanwhile, DarkSquidge reflects on the idea that YouTubers are truly social influencers;
‘Could people see what I’m doing…and be inspired to do the same? What would the result of that imitation be?’
And, lastly, Carrie Fisher of ItsWayPastMyBedTime deals with more accusations made against YouTube content creators by their audiences.
‘We know the age of the people watching our videos, we know in what part of the world they are watching from and we know their gender… we’re not oblivious to who is watching us. I feel that the responsibility to ensure our content is appropriate for those viewers, is ignored…’