Why are social media influencers able to get away with literally everything?

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Sydney Wargo

If you’re a frequent user of social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok, you’ve likely heard of “cancel culture.” This term refers to the common occurrence of people or companies being ostracized by a large number of people, often taking place on the Internet. Over the past few years, people (mainly celebrities and influencers) have been “cancelled” time and time again for demonstrating problematic behavior. 

People have been cancelled over old Tweets from years prior, insensitive jokes, and other things that in most contexts wouldn’t be that big of a deal; but the Internet tends to amplify anything and everything, resulting in massive waves of hate towards the person being cancelled. However, people have also been cancelled because they committed genuinely disgusting and hateful acts. 

For example, Shane Dawson, a popular YouTuber, was cancelled last year after old footage surfaced of him acting extremely inappropriately towards young children, including family members and fans, as well as acts of beastiality.

Commentary YouTuber D’angelo Wallace made a video with over 20 million views that documents and explains everything Dawson did. Dawson has been on YouTube since 2008, and since then has become extremely popular. He’s been cancelled many times before, but every time it’s been swept under the rug and everyone forgets about it in less than a week. 

So what made this time different? Many of the things Dawson was being criticized for were the same things he has been temporarily cancelled for in the past, but this time was so big that it resulted in the ending of his career on YouTube. It partly has to do with the fact that everything came out at once, while before it was only bits and pieces. 

Another reason may be that Dawson was in the spotlight more than ever after his collaboration with Jeffree Star, a beauty YouTuber who is also known to be very controversial, in which they made a makeup palette. The “Conspiracy” palette (along with the rest of their makeup collection, including a mini palette called “Mini Controversy”) came out in November of 2019, and the entire process of its creation was documented from start to finish on Dawson’s YouTube channel. 

Dawson and Star have both been on social media for well over a decade. Star started out on MySpace and eventually made his way to establishing his own cosmetics company, Jeffree Star Cosmetics. This along with the duo’s natural chemistry and the giant that is the beauty industry is what made their palette so successful. On the day of its release, they sold all one million units produced. 

Dawson was more popular than ever before, and in less than eight months, he became one of the most hated social media stars on the internet. This goes to show how the Internet can switch sides so easily, which leads into our next cancellation. 

James Charles is a beauty YouTuber who created his channel in 2015 and rose to fame in 2017 when he was made the first male ambassador of the magazine CoverGirl, and was soon after featured on the Ellen Degeneres Show when he was only 17 years old. He quickly became very popular and his YouTube channel started garnering millions of views and subscribers, who he refers to as “Sisters”. 

With this level of fame, Charles was in quite a few controversies, or what the beauty community refers to as “scandals”, but it was over things like petty behavior, old tweets, and bad makeup looks, all of which made no damage to his career. If anything, they made him even more popular. 

In 2018, James Charles collaborated with the popular beauty company Morphe to make his own makeup palette, which was immensely successful, similar to the level of the Conspiracy palette, which was released only a year later. Also similar to Dawson, eight months later Charles was cancelled by the internet. This was the first time someone was cancelled on such a broad scale. 

Fellow beauty YouTuber Tati Westbrook and self declared “mentor” of Charles came out with a video titled “BYE SISTER” claiming he preyed on and manipulated straight men into participating in sexual acts with him, and that his fame had gone to his head. This video blew up, and Charles broke records by losing 1.5 million subscribers in 24 hours. 

The scandal was so huge that it was covered by mainstream news sources such as CNN and the New York Times. People even took to watching his live subscriber count plummet on SocialBlade, a website that takes data from YouTube to track the progress and growth of different YouTube channels, for entertainment. 

A week later, Charles uploaded a video to his channel titled “No More Lies” in which he essentially debunks all of Westbrook’s claims, with evidence in the form of screenshots of text messages and videos (otherwise known as “receipts”). 

Once this video was posted, the narrative completely flipped: the internet went from hating Charles to loving him, and he gained all of the subscribers he lost and has since gained even more. This once again goes to show how quickly the Internet will switch up, and also how quick people are to jump on the hate train without any solid evidence to back them. This incident is a prime example of cancel culture, and how harmful it can be.

After pulling the biggest Uno Reverse Card of all time, James Charles continued to become even more popular. Since then, he has come out with a mini version of his palette with Morphe, sold a very successful line of merchandise, Sisters Apparel, and more recently collaborated with a number of Tik Tokers, including Charli and Dixie D’Amelio. 

As usual, Charles continued to get involved in smaller dramas during this time, mostly having to do with other popular social media influencers, but nothing major came up. He was called out a few times, however, by men and boys claiming Charles engaged in inappropriate conversations with them, but those that came forward were immediately silenced and it was all brushed under the rug. 

Although the scandal in 2019 involving Westbrook was catastrophic, for a while Charles actually benefited from it. There was now this do-no-wrong energy that surrounded Charles thanks to the preconceived notion created by the ”No More Lies” video that he could do no wrong; any allegations thrown his way were discredited as being false, and those who made said allegations were labeled as clout-chasers. That is, up until recently. 

In late February of 2021, a 16 year old boy named Isaiyah accused James Charles of grooming him and engaging in sexual conversations via Snapchat with him in a Tik Tok video that included incriminating pictures of their messages. Isaiyah alleged that Charles sent him nude photos of himself and pressured him into sending photos back, which can be clearly seen in the pictures the boy shows. This video went viral, and Charles started to receive backlash. The next day, he came out with a statement on Twitter claiming Isaiyah told him he was 18, and that since he took pictures of their conversations he had “ulterior motives from the beginning”, implying that this boy was just another clout chaser. 

People were quick to call out Charles for victim blaming. As the adult in the situation, he had the responsibility to confirm the boy’s age by means of ID, and he shouldn’t be trying to engage in such conversations with fans in the first place due to the clear power imbalance. 

Isaiyah then posted another Tik Tok which showed that his real age was clearly stated in his Tik Tok bio at the time the conversations took place, and that this is also the only social media account he has that gives his Snapchat username, meaning that Charles must have seen that he was in fact 16 before contacting him via Snapchat. Not to mention the fact that Isaiyah clearly appears to be young.

After Isaiyah came forward, more and more people, mostly minors, started to come forward as well, sharing their stories, which all involved the same narrative: they were a fan of James Charles, and when Charles reached out to them, he got ahold of their Snapchats, and would then continue to send them nude photos of himself while manipulating them into sending photos back. Once Charles got what he wanted, he would block them and never contact them again. In almost all of the different allegations photos were provided that showed these conversations.

As of now, more than 15 people, the majority of which are minors, the youngest being 14 years old, have come out accusing James Charles of sexual misconduct. These are blantant repeated acts of pedophilia, and Charles exudes a clear pattern of inappropriate sexual contact with minors. If the allegations are true, which they certainly appear to be, Charles has at the very least been in possession of child pornography. According to California law, these are crimes that could land him in prison for up to 10 years, or even more depending on the number of charges pressed. 

Despite these extremely serious allegations, the backlash Charles is receiving hardly compares to the level of backlash he received back in May 2019. The accusations Westbrook made against Charles were either not backed up with any evidence or completely debunked. Yet all it took was one 40 minute video, which was just a grown woman ranting about a teenager, to persuade millions of people to unsubscribe from Charles’ YouTube channel. Today, after several men and boys have made accusations backed up by photo evidence against Charles over a period of months, people are only just now beginning to unsubscribe from his channel, but there is still hardly a comparison; over the past month Charles has lost 200,000 subscribers, which is only a fraction of the amount of subscribers Charles had lost in just one day back in 2019. 

A combination of factors have led to this drastically different conclusion. Tati Westbrook was a well known and well respected beauty YouTuber who has millions of subscribers, therefore giving her a much bigger platform. This on top of the fact that it was public knowledge Westbrook and Charles had a very close relationship likely further convinced people that Charles was guilty of the accusations brought against him. The current accusations are coming from young people who are for the most part not at all in the spotlight, which makes it more difficult for people to hear what they have to say. 

Westbrook also has a huge fan base made up of people who will support and defend her no matter what, and so does James Charles. Charles’ alleged victims don’t have that type of protection or defense. They are more often than not quickly shut down by Charles’ fans, and are always bombarded with a huge amount of hate. The clout-chaser argument really doesn’t hold up here, since the only kind of clout they’re getting out of this is trauma, which isn’t really clout at all, just mental scarring. 

And perhaps what may be one of the largest contributing factors is entertainment value. Westbrook’s “BYE SISTER” video was entertaining. Watching James Charles’ subscriber count plummet live as if it was a movie was entertaining. The drama, the “tea,” whatever you want to call it, it was fun to watch. Even if you think what happened was messed up in retrospect, there’s no denying that at least in the moment of it all, it was entertaining. It was like watching a car crash; it’s brutal, and you know someone is getting hurt in the destruction of it all, but you just can’t look away. It was really one of those “you had to be there” type of situations. It was monumental. Chaostrophic. And from an outside perspective, kind of funny.

The current drama, if you can even call it that at this point, is nothing like that. It’s not entertaining or funny or some petty drama. It’s criminal. It’s dark, and triggering for a lot of people, and an unpleasant thing to witness or even think about. The majority of James Charles’ fanbase is kids and teenagers. Knowing that someone your age, just a regular, everyday type of person you could pass on the street and not look twice at was a victim of something like this, not just because of anybody, but a celebrity. A role model. Somebody you look up to and aspire to be like. To discover that that person isn’t at all who you thought they were is devastating, especially if you’re a kid. So, it’s a lot easier to let yourself get convinced that it’s all fake, because that way you don’t have to deal with the devastation that comes with finding out you don’t really know this person. 

The thing that makes YouTubers different from ordinary celebrities is that you grow a personal connection with them. When you watch their videos, it feels like they’re talking to you, and that you’re there with them, rather than just watching them on a screen or in a concert or movie. From what a YouTuber shows you, which is a lot more than someone like Beyonce for example, it can feel like you really know them. Like you’re not just a fan, but a friend. And coming to the realization that that’s not true at all — that you don’t know them like you think you do because all you see is what they film, and the image of themselves that they put out there catered to attract people like yourself — it’s painful, and hard to accept. So a lot of people just decide not to.

So it kind of does make sense why social media influencers are able to get away with so much. James Charles is just one example. Of course, not every YouTuber is a creep or a horrible person with some deep dark secret. Most of them are just normal people doing their job, so they can have food on the table and a roof over their heads. But when fame, money, and power get involved, it can start to get messy, and in more extreme cases, dangerous.