TW: Graphic imagery and disturbing topics
The internet is a disturbing place full of things we often don’t want to see. But when innocent kids are being exposed to the awful, dark sides of the web, it becomes something to be deeply concerned about.
“Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatize, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.”
YouTube’s algorithm has backfired: videos featuring characters (either cartoons or role-playing) like Elsa, Spiderman, Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig, and others, that initially seem to be child-friendly end up featuring themes like sex, child pregnancy, murder, dismemberment, self-mutilation, suicide, underage drinking, torture, rape, drug use, drinking of urine, eating of feces and more. Some of these have found their way up to YouTube Kids app, even with parental settings.
Most Elsa Gate videos come from verified accounts, generating millions of views and subscribers very fast. Two of such were among the 100 Most Viewed YouTube channels: “Toy Freaks” and “Toys and Funny Kids Surprise Eggs,” which both were shut down recently.
This is a worldwide phenomenon. “Mister Tisha,” already shut down, can be easily categorized as a Russian extremist version of “Toy Freaks.” In their bio, they describe themselves as a children’s channel, just like “Toy Freaks.” In their videos, an 8-year-old kid can be seen in scenes such as a scary clown forcing the younger sibling into a washing machine, kid bleeding on the dentist, and bad baby misbehaving while an adult holds a belt. There is also another version produced in Asia similar to “Toy Freaks” called “Good Baby Toys.”
All of these videos are pitched specifically at kids. According to James Bridle’s analysis, there’s a whole system to consider. Firstly, some channels manage to be automated, producing several videos a week: stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords are assembled into infinite versions of the same video.
Secondly, these videos are named similarly to those watched by kids. In order to get more views and to appear in the Recommended section, they include popular keywords like “colors,” “surprise,” “finger family” (a very popular educational song), “nursery rhymes,” “toys,” “learning.” Take for example a now removed video titled “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video” that used animations from the Grand Theft Auto videogame overlaid with cartoon characters assaulting, killing, and burying one another. The title is undoubtedly misleading.
There is another pattern to notice, described by a Steemit writer. All of these channels have plots and characters that are similar to each other. When it comes to characters, very frequently they present Elsa, The Joker, and Spiderman. When it comes to plots, an increasingly pervasive motif involves a father drinking beer, leaving to answer the phone, and the babies getting drunk until a bottle falls onto their heads and they bleed. Other videos include kids getting left at airports, Spiderman peeing on Elsa’s bathtub, kids burning their hand with a pan or the oven, kids bathing in M&M’s and poop, and Kinder surprise eggs getting pulled out of the toilet.
The Steemit writer argues the videos are meant to be used as psychological programming. They explained that these videos “involve a phone ringing – a useful device, to tell the viewer, to pay attention. They involve close-ups, often of the beer bottles, with a wide ‘alert’ halo around them. They all involve shock injury, something that would make a child remember.” This also strongly suggests that these videos are being produced by the same group of people.
Some believe the underlying motive behind these disturbing videos is about desensitizing kids in hopes to normalize the behavior of murderers, abusers, and pedophiles. Some also believe that this could merely be deviant trolls. Whichever it is, it is clear that these videos are being unethically and dangerously directed towards kids.
Thankfully, YouTube has started to take some action. In a blog post by Johanna Wright, the Vice President of Product Management at YouTube, the company made clear it is looking to help eradicate the issue.
But if this has been going on for years, how is it that YouTube is supposedly just finding out about this? And furthermore, how are these channels still being verified? I, myself, found two verified channels called “Mecurity Kids TV” and “Beeble Kids TV” within 15 minutes, today, November 25. It is clear that these videos generate millions of views and dollars. Was it convenient for YouTube to just look away? And why are Disney and Entertainment One (who owns Peppa Pig) not taking any action let alone bothering to comment?
This is a pretty severe violation of the Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to a standard of living adequate for physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. YouTube has to take stronger measures by suspending these channels, improving the filters, and reforming the YouTube Kids app.