YouTube: Where you can experiment on humans as much as you like

Ironically, Gee’s reaction to being called up on his fake experiments on Today Tonight provides exactly the kind of car-crash watching these “social experiments” do. He then went on to reveal that four further videos were also “partly staged”, after claiming that he’d had no problem doing media interviews about the staged video because “most of the stuff they put out to air [is] all lies” anyway.

It was hardly a sensical excuse, but then he didn’t need to have one. Old media may have caught new media out, but so what? There can be no fines, and no bans: just the usual outrage, additional exposure and YouTube ad revenue that keeps the world spinning.

The internet takes the law into its own hands

Amazingly, though, it does seem that you can cross a line – even on the internet. Sam Pepper is a British YouTuber and former Big Brother star with, at the time of writing, 2,326,844 followers. To be fair, his videos don’t claim to be social experiments as such, and are more on the prank end of the spectrum. Last month, he released a video so harrowing that the internet fought back.

The video is titled “KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK | Ft. Sam & Colby”, and you can probably infer the contents from that, but just in case you can’t, it involves Pepper teaming up with another YouTube duo to see how someone reacts when their best friend is murdered before their very eyes.  It’s genuinely distressing, but has managed to rack up nearly eight million views – so that’s alright then, eh? The comments are almost universally negative, and YouTube seems to have disabled the thumbs-down counter, which doesn’t suggest it met a hugely positive response.youtube_social_experiments_killing_best_friend

“It’s genuinely distressing, but has managed to rack up nearly eight million views – so that’s alright then, eh?”

But it seems Pepper managed to make a powerful enemy in the process: @TheAnonMessage (account since suspended) claimed to speak for hacking group Anonymous and threatened Pepper in a series of tweets to its 170,000 or so followers. The New Statesman records the tweets as reading: “We’ve been notified of a sick, disturbing video uploaded by @sampepper. Yet again, he uses violent abuse to garner subscribers. This is something that we cannot stand for. This so-called prank should bring shame to the YouTube community for supporting this imbecile. This video must be taken down. @SamPepper you have been warned. You have 24 hours or we will unleash fucking hell on you.”

Could Anonymous be the guardians of regulation in the Wild West of YouTube? Don’t hold your breath:

The video is still live, and “fucking hell” has not been unleashed on Sam Pepper, as far as I can tell.

“Old media’s coverage of science created this monster. How and even if it can be tackled is anybody’s guess.”

You could argue that what a bunch of internet celebrities do on YouTube is pretty much a cultural irrelevance, and that nobody should believe what they watch online. There’s definitely some truth in that, but with a growing audience of impressionable (mostly) teenagers as the target audience, future world views could be distorted over time. Turns out most people won’t rob a blind man asking for change, no matter what the video told you.

Facebook has recently introduced a tag for satirical sites, to try and stem the tide of fake news – could a similar system be used on YouTube? Good luck with that: there’s a finite number of news websites, but anyone with a smartphone can publish a misleading social experiment.youtube_social_experiments_ethics

Vote with your feet and don’t watch? That’s also wishful thinking: people love being outraged, as certain well-paid newspaper columnists know, and as long as the ad impressions roll in, you’re not going to disincentivise bad practice.

Maybe the best hope is that enough shadiness will be exposed to toss the reputation of social experiments down the drain, but in the case of most of these, the ethical pitfalls are obvious already and people still watch.

This brings me back to the genuine experiments of old. Very few people claim we should relax the ethical standards of science, but we still glorify the experiments undertaken before we saw sense. Old media’s coverage of science created this monster. How and even if it can be tackled is anybody’s guess.

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Images: DaderotFred the OysterKarl Jonsson, Anthony Ryan.

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