Viewer discretion advised? Your child's favourite YouTuber may be posting offensive content
Jon 'JonTron' Jafari recently made a series of comments widely considered racist
Alexandra Orlando discovered the influence online personalities can have on youngsters during a recent dinner with family.
Her cousin was talking about Destiny, a sci-fi shooter released in 2014. Orlando couldn't tell whether he had played the game or not, but he clearly had opinions about it.
"It seemed to be along the lines of a rant. Like, another person was talking through my cousin," said Orlando, who is actually a video game researcher at the University of Waterloo.
She soon learned that he was repeating excerpts from a YouTube video by Jon Jafari, a popular gamer and comedian better known as JonTron, almost word for word.
Orlando became more concerned when her cousin then started reeled off talking points from another YouTuber arguing that women don't belong in the videogames industry.
"My mind went out there: Oh my god, what other YouTube videos is he watching?" she said.
These kinds of conversations have been happening more and more in recent months due to an increasing awareness that some popular online personalities can veer into non-family-friendly subject matter — such as sexism and racism.
Wading into U.S. immigration debate
Jafari has over three million followers on his YouTube page. For the most part, his videos are about gaming and pop culture.
But on Twitter, his impressions about the latest Legend of Zelda game co-exist with controversial political comments.
Shortly after Donald Trump won the U.S. election in November, he criticized anti-Trump protesters on his Twitter account and in an interview with Breitbart News.
In March, he tweeted support for Iowa Republican congressman Steve King, who believes that immigration is a threat to American culture and has said "we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."
Other Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have criticized King's comments. But Jafari, an American citizen of Hungarian and Iranian descent, hasn't wavered.
"Wow, how scandalous, Steve King doesn't want his country invaded by people who have contempt for his culture and people! NAZI!!!" he tweeted on March 12.
Jafari continued this line of argument in a two-hour debate with Steve Bonnell, a Twitch streamer who often discusses controversial political topics. In it, Jafari made numerous false claims, including that Mexicans were migrating to the U.S. to "reclaim" American land and that wealthy black men are more likely to commit crimes than poor white men.
Lol all these people reading into my tweet about socialism. I wasn't trying to make a political statement you dolts! It was just funny—@JonTronShow
The comments took Jafari's fans by surprise, some of whom voiced their displeasure on the JonTron fan group on Reddit. He reportedly lost thousands of YouTube subscribers in the aftermath.
The next week, games studio Playtonic announced that their upcoming game Yooka-Laylee would no longer feature his voice in a guest role.
"His rhetoric was so far out of the mainstream that it really struck me," said Patrick Klepek, editor at Vice's gaming site, Waypoint.
"It wasn't just that he was advocating for a conservative approach to immigration policy. He was deploying racist alt-right rhetoric that for a lot of people was beyond the pale."
CBC reached out to Jafari for comment, but he did not respond.
YouTube 'a universe with a million channels'
JonTron's foray into political commentary happened as some of YouTube's biggest stars have come under increased scrutiny.
In February, Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg — one of the world's most popular YouTubers, with over 54 million followers — was publicly censured for using anti-Semitic and Nazi imagery for a punchline in one of his videos.
It cost him his sponsorship from Disney's Maker Studios. His upcoming YouTube Red show was also cancelled.
It's no secret that the comments section for many YouTube videos is filled with racist or sexist remarks. But parents might have felt safe thinking the actual content in their kids' favourite YouTube clips was "just video games" or other all-ages subject matter.
The PewDiePie and JonTron controversies have proven this isn't the case. In fact, the online landscape is more of a minefield than traditional outlets.
It is complicated by YouTube's content curation policies. There are no ratings or summaries of potentially offensive material on YouTube like you would find at your local movie theatre. The only way to know if someone drops an F-bomb or makes lewd jokes while talking about an all-ages video game is to watch it.
For parents who want to know more about their kids' media consumption, that poses a significant hurdle.
Policing content is "challenging when we are in, essentially, a universe with a million channels," said Matthew Johnson, director of education for Media Smarts, a Canadian non-profit for media and digital literacy.
Johnson wasn't surprised that the JonTron controversy started with a comment about Steve King. In the wake of Trump's ascension to the White House, he said he's seen "problematic material, sometimes verging into hate material," become normalized.
- CBC Radio's Ideas: Gamergate and the alt-right
- The Current: How 4chan and troll culture helped elect Trump
"I don't know if we can draw a straight line, but certainly, I think we can see many of the groups that backed [Donald] Trump are examples of the same phenomenon of hate speech moving into the mainstream," he said.
Johnson also cited the GamerGate phenomenon, which "moved a lot of the radical misogyny more into the public eye."
Offensive content irks advertisers
Incidents of casual sexism and racism are not only affecting YouTubers but causing problems for the company itself.
Companies such as AT&T and Walmart withdrew advertising from the site to prevent their brands from appearing on a wide variety of potentially offensive content.
Ben Kuchera, a columnist for the gaming site Polygon, said the unfiltered, uncensored nature of YouTube is what drew millions of fans to people like JonTron and PewDiePie. But it has also led to their current PR troubles.
"I think a lot of these personalities are used to being able to get away with a lot of stuff. And they're suddenly having to deal with the fact that with millions of subscribers and this huge reach, there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that," he said.
- Google's YouTube loses more advertisers over offensive videos
- Google drops YouTuber PewDiePie's show over anti-Semitic stunt
While the online ecosystem is a bigger and more confusing landscape than that of TV or film, Kuchera said the basic tenets of media literacy still apply.
"My advice would be to just treat it the same way you'd treat anything else: Pay attention to what your kids are watching," said Kuchera, who is a father of five.
"Ask them who their favourite people on YouTube are, and do a little research on them. Watch a few episodes with your children so you know what they're watching."