What does a 14-year-old girl dressed in a chador have to say on YouTube to amass more than 800,000 followers?
How about this: “I’ve become a devout follower of the Prophet Muhammad. Suffice to say, I’ve been having a fuck ton of fun. Of course, I get raped by my 40-year-old husband every so often and I have to worship a black cube to indirectly please an ancient Canaanite god — but at least I get to go to San Fran and stone the shit out of some gays, and the cops can’t do anything about it because California is a crypto-caliphate.”
Or how about, simply, “Kill yourself, faggot.”
Yes, if you want a vision of the future YouTube is midwifing, imagine a cherubic white girl mocking Islamic dress while lecturing her hundreds of thousands of followers about Muslim “rape gangs,” social justice “homos,” and the evils wrought by George Soros — under the thin guise of edgy internet comedy, forever.
Actually, don’t imagine it. Watch it. It’s already here.
The video is called “Be Not Afraid,” and it may be the clearest manifestation yet of the culture the executives of Alphabet’s video monster are delivering to millions of kids around the world, now via children incubated in that selfsame culture. To understand just how bad things have gotten on the platform, you need to see it for yourself.
Users — and more importantly to YouTube, advertisers — have over the past year started to hold the platform accountable for enabling the exploitation of children and exposing them to disturbing content. But this video reveals an entirely different way the platform is harming kids: by letting them express extreme views in front of the entire world. This is what indoctrination looks like when it’s reflected back by the indoctrinated.
A 20-minute, unbroken, and hyperarticulate tirade ostensibly about ignoring criticism online, “Be Not Afraid” stars a high school freshman from the Bay Area who goes by the name Soph on YouTube. (She edits as well as scores the videos, which she says are comedic.) Through videos like these, she’s become a rising star — with more than 800,000 followers — in the universe of conspiracy theorists, racists, and demagogues that owes its big bang to YouTube.
The video platform for years has incentivized such content through algorithms favoring sensational videos, and, as recent reporting has revealed, has deliberately ignored toxic content as a growth strategy.
Soph’s scripts, which she says she writes with a collaborator, are familiar: a mix of hatred toward Muslims, anti-black racism, Byzantine fearmongering about pedophilia, tissue-thin incel evolutionary psychology, and reflexive misanthropy that could have been copied and pasted from a thousand different 4chan posts. Of course, it’s all presented in the terminally ironic style popularized by boundary-pushing comedy groups like the influential Million Dollar Extreme and adopted of late by white supremacist mass shooters in Christchurch and San Diego.
(Soph is even more explicitly hateful on Discord, the gaming chat app, where she recently admitted to writing under the username “lutenant faggot” that she hoped for “A Hitler for Muslims” to “gas them all.”)
By now, we’re used to this stuff coming from grown men — some of whom have even used the platform as a launching pad for political aspirations. But Soph is a child. Despite the vitriol of her words and her confidence in delivering them, she’s still just a 14-year-old kid. And hearing this language lisped through braces, with the odd word mispronounced as if read but never before said, is clarifying.
Think of Jonathan Krohn, the conservative child prodigy who addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009, at age 13. Today he’s a freelance journalist who writes about extremism for liberal magazines, and has disowned his past views. Or think of Lynx and Lamb Gaede, who became media sensations as 11-year-old white nationalist twin pop singers in the mid-aughts. Today they’ve renounced racism and taken up marijuana legalization activism. Part of being a young person, maybe especially for a rhetorically gifted one, is testing out ideas and identities — even ones we later find anathema. That’s not to excuse anything Soph says; but it is to say children often don’t understand the weight of the words they use. (Neither Soph nor her father responded to requests for comment.)
Interviews with Soph and asides in her videos reveal a young person whose identity is obviously still being formed. She didn’t start as a politics caster but, predictably, as a profane 9-year-old (9!) game streamer called LtCorbis. Influential YouTubers Pyrocynical and Keemstar promoted her early work, which ripped on YouTube culture and the indignities of being a fifth-grader instead of people of color and liberals. (A 2016 Daily Dot story about her bore the unintentionally profound headline “This sweary, savvy, 11-year-old gamer girl is the future of YouTube.”) In more recent videos, Soph discloses a health issue that kept her out of class for long stretches. She confesses to being unhappy in school. She talks about a move from New York to California. She identifies by turns as “right-wing” and “anarcho-capitalist.” She’s 14, precocious, isolated, and pissed off, a combination that has produced a lot of bad behavior over the years, but not all of it monetized through preroll ads and a Patreon, and not all of it streamed to millions.
YouTube’s kid problem is well-known. From disturbing auto-generated cartoons to parents who playact violence with their children for clicks to a network of users exploiting videos of children for sexual content, the company has consistently failed at protecting the young users who are its most valuable assets. But Soph’s popularity raises another, perhaps more difficult question, about whether YouTube has an obligation to protect such users from themselves — and one another.
Of course, that’s partially the job of parents, a fact Soph pointed out in a recent video while addressing people alarmed by her content.
“I’m wondering why they’re concerned with what I say instead of being concerned with the parents who let their kids watch me,” she said.
It’s unclear how much Soph’s own parents know about her videos. Internet sleuths have figured out details about her parents’ lives, one of whom Soph has claimed voted for Hillary Clinton. In a recent interview, Soph said that her parents have never had a serious conversation with her about the politics of her videos, though she did respond angrily when a reporter attempted to contact her dad.
But the powers of parents over children who live online are limited. And YouTube has taken no ownership over what is happening to kids who grow up inhaling its trademark stench of bigotry, conspiracy, and nihilism. Now the kids, or the smart ones anyway, seem to know it. Indeed, YouTube’s own incompetence and lack of quality is one of Soph’s recurring themes; she acknowledges owing her fame to them.
“The fact that I was 11 and could easily follow the commentary formula should have been a sign that the standards for the genre were terribly low,” she said in the same interview.
Last month, after YouTube deactivated comments on her videos — the platform disabled comments on all videos with children in response to an outcry over the aforementioned network of exploitation — Soph uploaded a 12-minute video in which she seemed to be daring the platform to suspend her, knowing full well that it wouldn’t.
“Susan, I’ve known your address since last summer,” Soph said, directly addressing YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki. “I’ve got a Luger and a mitochondrial disease. I don’t care if I live. Why should I care if you live or your children? I just called an Uber. You’ve got about seven minutes to draft up a will. … I’m coming for you, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.”
A far-right child comedian threatening to murder the executive of the video site that has made her famous, for trying to protect her from pedophiles: the state of YouTube in 2019.
After being contacted about the story, YouTube reviewed Soph’s channel. It removed the video containing the death threat against Wojcicki, but not “Be Not Afraid” or any others. The company also issued Soph a strike, which prevents her from uploading videos for a week. According to YouTube, as per its terms of service, the platform is for children 13 and older, and it deletes accounts belonging to children under that age as it is made aware of them. Soph created her account at age 9 and received significant publicity for her videos before turning 13.
Indeed, one of Soph’s messages seems to be that in a world where the adults who have grown rich through technology took the implications of that technology seriously, she wouldn’t exist. She’s a problem, she seems to be saying, of YouTube’s own making.
“You could beg me kicking and screaming to stop disseminating the ideas I believe in, and it wouldn’t make a fucking difference,” Soph says at the end of “Be Not Afraid,” in a passage in which she seems to drop her shtick, if only for a moment. “Not only am I inoculated to that bullshit, most of Gen Z is too. Millennials grew up with MTV and nowadays watch Colbert. We, on the other hand, grew up with the internet, so we have no centralized source of information that controls what we think. We filter out the truth for ourselves; we’re not lazy. No one is brainwashing kids. Kids are simply learning from having free access to information, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The ultimate target of “Be Not Afraid” is, finally, adults: people who just don’t get why social justice discourse is meaningless and co-optable, why school can’t compare to YouTube, why mass murder can be funny. People who have enough experience to know better. She’s sure that adults are selfish and stupid, that the people with the most power over her life are making it up as they go along, just like she is. When you look at the adults who have gotten rich off the platform that created Soph, she isn’t completely wrong. She’s been publishing on YouTube for years with no consequence other than becoming famous.