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Sam Pepper: #TeamInternet's small victory and the massive battlefield it uncovered

Michelle Avenant's picture

I was elated when Sam Pepper’s “Fake hand ass pinch prank” video was rightfully removed by Youtube within two days of being uploaded. Instead of being a swift and feel-good victory for feminists, though, the incident has served as an ongoing and increasingly disturbing awakening to the sexual abuse entrenched in Youtube culture.

The Lowdown
For those not in the know, Sam Pepper’s “Fake hand ass pinch prank” featured Pepper asking women for directions in the street, and then pinching their bums when they turned around to show him the way.

Numerous Youtube users quickly recognised Pepper’s actions as sexual assault, and his video as encouraging assault by framing it as a trivialized “prank”. These users, in their thousands, reported the video for abuse and posted calls to #ReportSamPepper on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Youtube.

When I found the video, it had over 100 000 dislikes and under 50 000 likes. By the time I took to Twitter to spread the word, Youtube had (finally) removed it. Pepper was subsequently dropped by his network and banned from attending VidCon, Summer in the City, and several other Youtuber gatherings.

Instead of apologizing, Pepper posted two follow-up videos to his initial prank, titled “The Reveal” parts 2 and 3, in which he attempts to frame the prank as a “social experiment” to raise awareness about sexual harassment. These videos are quite clearly a poor cover-up attempt, and have since been taken down (Part 2, in which Pepper attempts to make some kind of statement by filming women assaulting men in the same way, was removed by Youtube; Part 3 has been made private by Pepper).

A Closer Look
Sam Pepper’s name did not stop trending when his videos were taken down. The conversation quickly shifted to the numerous other videos in which Pepper assaults women to for likes and laughs (some or all of which seem to have been removed at the time of writing), and to the scores of other Youtubers who capitalize off violation in similar ways, all without any noticeable intervention from Youtube.

 

Although Laci Green mentions working with Youtube to implement policies to shut down users’ entire accounts for repeated offences, others speculate that Youtube has vested interests in treating its “report” button as a half-baked decoration.

Most devastating and disturbing, however, are the stories from scores* of young women who came forward online to speak out about being personally sexually harassed, abused or raped by Pepper. Many of these young women were underage at the time of being violated, and their stories speak volumes about how social networks can enable sexual abuse. In several cases, Pepper used Facebook and Twitter to find young women he met at Youtube gatherings and engineer situations in which he could be alone with them.

However optimised by social networks, celebrities abusing young fans is by no means a new phenomenon. What is new is to see victims’ abuse stories broadcasted on the same platform by which their abusers garner their fame. However patchy the network’s intervention has been, it is heartening to see Pepper’s rape victims’ stories appear alongside Pepper’s account when searching “Sam Pepper” on Youtube.

We cannot rely on social network administrators to remove abusive content, but we can use these networks to influence how such content is perceived and supported.

*Collection of online testimonies from women assaulted by Sam Pepper
(trigger warning: descriptions of rape and other forms of sexual assault)