She built a community to protect the abused. Now she’s on the side of the abusers. What happened to YouTuber Laci Green?
Anyone who’s marginalized knows the dangers of online harassment — and YouTuber Laci Green, who rose to prominence by conducting online sex education content on behalf of Planned Parenthood and Discovery News, has faced some of the worst of it. In addition to the usual vile comments and death threats, she’s contended with physical harm as well, in the form of objects thrown in her direction during speaking engagements.
According to a large Pew Research Center study, Green’s experience is startlingly common: 73% of adult online users have seen harassment happen to someone else, while 40% have experienced it themselves (with marginalized creators facing a disproportionate amount of abuse). In light of this, last December, Green decided to take matters into her own hands by starting a secret Facebook group to share resources, tips, and blocklists in order to deal with abuse. She also shared various methods for filtering out abusive comments with YouTube’s new comment moderation system.73% of adult online users have seen harassment happen to someone else, while 40% have experienced it themselves. Click To Tweet
Her influence in this space has been considerable — with 1.5 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, a lot of people listen to what Green has to say. Last year, she was even named one of the 30 most influential people on the internet by Time.
All of which makes her recent turn deeply troubling.
In late May, seemingly out of the blue, Green dramatically shifted her tone on harassment. Where once she supported the abused, she suddenly began questioning why there’s “more than two genders” and arguing that “both sides of the argument are valid” for everything from racism to transphobia to misogyny. In a stunning example of her newfound hypocrisy, she called feminist YouTuber and fellow member of her anti-harassment Facebook group Kat Blaque a “sociopath,” and earlier this month, she tweeted the following:
civil dissent is not harassment. conflict =/= abuse. hurt feelings =/= trauma. overstating harm comes at the expense of survivors. #message
In a series of videos, Green revealed that her shift was a result of “red pilling,” the term for a twisted Matrix-inspired recruitment process coined by men’s rights advocates, pick-up artists, and the “alt right.” The process involves a recruiter who attempts to position white supremacists as oppressed truth tellers while spinning phony racial and gender science as “free speech” that’s being trampled on by feminists and the political left.
Green, it seems, was red-pilled after appearing in a debate with the prominent anti-feminist Blaire White, a trans woman, alt-right anti-feminist, and generally vile YouTuber who has said that trans women who get beat up or murdered deserve it for “tricking men,” fat people should be shamed until they lose weight, and refugees should be gassed (White has deleted the latter tweet since publication, but the archived version can be viewed here). While it appears that Green’s appearance on White’s channel marked an important milestone in Green’s “red pilling,” her turn may also be related to a relationship she formed with anti-feminist YouTuber Chris Ray Gun, who made a video last year saying those condemning Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comments were “missing chromosomes,” and has claimed that white supremacists are just being funny.
In any case, that someone so influential in the progressive online space could make such a complete 180 has shaken the social justice community to its core. How could a defender of equality change so much, so quickly? And what does it mean for those who had come to trust Green’s safe space online?
The answers to these questions are chillingly incomplete — and raise questions anew about the safety of online spaces for those who routinely face harassment.
To understand the gravity of Green’s shift, it’s important to grasp how online harassment has evolved over the years — and how profound its dangers can be.
When Green created her anti-harassment Facebook group, it was largely in response to the rising trend of “response videos,” YouTube videos created by trolls who have devoted their lives to attacking feminist content. Creators of these videos often claim that their content does not itself constitute harassment, while simultaneously ignoring the actions of their followers, who frequently bombard their targets with an overwhelming number of slurs and violent messages.
Lindsay Amer, a queer YouTuber who has experienced response videos firsthand, explains:
“You see these anti-feminist YouTubers who gain hundreds of thousands of followers in under a year. I think there’s a lot of money in anti-feminism. The content is really easy to make and it doesn’t have to be high quality. Someone can just turn on a camera and rant and say something controversial and know that it’s going to get a ton of views. I see people who recut my videos with their bullying commentary added.”
Troublingly, up until recently, such videos were not only supported by YouTube, but incentivized. Because response videos are so easy to make, it was easy for reactionary YouTubers to churn out a lot of content, which YouTube then prioritized in an algorithm that favored prolific output, high view counts, and abundant comments — even if those comments were toxic. Gaming the very closely held secret of the YouTube algorithm became a de facto path to internet stardom, and the format was perfect for response-video creators. Even after changes to their algorithm in December of last year, YouTube has continued to discourage vloggers from preventing harassment — according to Amer, when users disable comments and the sidebar for other suggested videos, their content is less likely to be promoted by the algorithm, and their view counts plummet.I Click To Tweet
Amer explains how these response videos can in turn breed serious abuse. After uploading her first video on her YouTube channel “Queer Kids Stuff,” she was surprised to see it take off — but after it was picked up by the Nazi “alt-right” website Daily Stormer, she was swiftly confronted with a slew of response videos. In turn, she says, the audiences of the YouTubers who created those videos “came at my channel and abused me and my followers”; the harassment included pictures of nooses, death threats, and anti-Semitic messages about ovens, showers, and being gassed.
Moreover, this abuse isn’t always “just” virtual — often, the threat can become physical. Just last weekend, for example, abusive YouTubers made their presence known at Vidcon in Anaheim, California, the largest online video convention in the world. During the panel “Women Online,” response-video trolls occupied the entire front two rows of the venue in order to harass the panelists in person. Eventually, feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian exclaimed to Carl Benjamin, a troll popularly known as “Sargon of Akkad”:
“You make your name on YouTube by making these dumbass videos that just say the same shit over and over again. I hate to give you attention because you’re a garbage human, whatever dude.”
Sarkeesian’s comment, which elicited a gasp from the audience, was rooted in a long and ugly history; over the last two years, Sarkeesian’s name or appearance has been displayed in roughly 20 video titles or thumbnails on Benjamin’s channel.
Benjamin especially likes to gripe about Sarkeesian’s speaking fees and the amount of money she makes — neglecting to mention that, in reality, she has had to cancel speaking events due to death threats. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 article by Daily Kos, Benjamin makes about $1.50 per thousand views on his YouTube channel. Assuming those numbers are still accurate, that would mean his latest video on the fallout from his Vidcon encounter with Sarkeesian has netted him about $546 in just three days. Benjamin also makes over $5,500 a month on Patreon, a website for creators to find funding. (Multiple efforts to seek comment from Benjamin for this story went unanswered, with several of his Twitter followers making accusations of bias.)
In a statement released on their official Medium account today, comments attributed to Vidcon founder Hank Green (no relation to Laci) addressed the controversy from this weekend, noting:
“He [Hank Green] apologized to her [Sarkeesian] for not having been more aware of and active in understanding the situation before the event, which resulted in her being subjected to a hostile environment that she had not signed up for.”
But this comment is difficult to believe given that this type of trolling is becoming more commonplace. In March of this year, a panel led by political activist Cenk Uygur at SXSW was crashed by alt right troll Steven Crowder in order to generate content for Crowder’s YouTube channel, an incident which was only really covered by the right wing press. Even Laci Green’s boyfriend got into the act the day before the Sarkeesian/Benjamin conflict by filming a Kat Blaque panel for retweets. The problem has been prominent enough that, according to a screenshot, Laci Green herself emailed YouTube staff about the presence of certain YouTubers at VidCon just a few months ago.
All of which brings us back to Laci Green’s surprising transformation. It was response videos that first prompted Amer to connect with Green, which in turn led to the formation of the anti-harassment Facebook group. Until it was shut down in June as a result of Green’s red-pilling, that group provided some of the best support online for those facing virtual and physical threats as a result of their views and identity.
To be fair, of course, online harassment is extremely complex, and hardly solely the fault of Green — and to be quite honest, I couldn’t care less who her boyfriend is or what her politics are. But to suddenly turn around and whitewash years of abuse is inexcusable. Gaslighting actual abuse victims by downplaying their trauma and equating it with “hurt feelings”—especially with such a large platform—is an unconscionable violation, especially knowing herself the results of such toxicity. (Ella Dawson, a sexual health writer who has written several times about her own online harassment and the topic more generally, tells me, “I’m really surprised to see Laci using this line of argument when she herself has received so much harassment and abuse in the decade she’s been making videos.”)
Green and others in her newfound camp often claim that this is an issue of protected dissent and free speech. But it’s hard to imagine any contexts in which sending death threats or telling a Jewish woman to “get in an oven,” or even labelling someone a “sociopath,” can be taken as simple “civil dissent” — especially considering how abusive language can and does manifest as physical threats.
Green’s change of heart has, unsurprisingly, incited a backlash of outrage from many who fight for social justice — and at times, problematically, this has veered itself into abuse, with people sending misogynistic slurs in Green’s direction and doxing her private identity information. But while responses like these are dangerous and should not be condoned, creating a respectful dialogue around Green’s dramatic shift is perfectly fair.
Since YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook continue to choose the path of least resistance concerning online harassment, it’s up to us to provide love and support to those on the receiving end. Laci Green was doing that with her words, actions, and her Facebook group. It’s distressing to see her change her mind — while endorsing abuse that has harmed far too many for far too long.