I’ve been researching YouTube communities for a few weeks now for an upcoming book and found myself pondering a surprising question. Before we dive in I’d like to remind everyone that I don’t have the answers, just an overwhelming curiosity. Also some of the videos contain naughty language, so be aware.
Communities exist because, as we know, YouTube is a vast website where thousands of videos are uploaded every second and, without individuals of common interest pulling together and promoting each other, they’d all be lost in a vacuum. The thing is, people are people and, no matter how much we’d love to, we don’t really get along – at least certain people can’t with each other. I’ve noticed each community (Booktube, Storytime, Ranters, Vegans… oh God, the Vegans… we’ll come to that) will have its antagonists or people who just don’t agree with the way others are doing things, the others often take sides, and sometimes it leads to the disintegration of the group and sometimes not. It’s the same with any large mass of people, online or otherwise, it’s just a new platform for all this to happen.
There’s another element to online disagreements though, one which is both fascinating and disturbing: can a YouTuber become a cult leader? It sounds completely daft but more and more I’ve wondered at the possibility. There is a general fear that impressionable people can be lured into cults via the internet, though whether there is any basis in fact is another matter.
One YouTuber years ago jokingly (?) attempted to start his own cult and, interestingly, he’s a person many have since had genuine concerns about. They worry that his young fan base is easily taken in by what he tells them and so on. But does that make it possible for him to be a real cult leader? In order to decide that I suppose we ought to define what a cult leader is.
The following video demonstrates the common ways a rational person is manipulated and transformed into a follower:
It seems pretty crazy and far-fetched to think someone could manage all this by uploading videos onto a website, right? But some are convinced it’s possible. I suppose we can look at it two ways. When we don’t like someone, we tend to view everything they say and do through the worst possible lens. For example, the lady in the video below felt a YouTuber was disrespecting disabled people and, once she approached him via social media, he didn’t respond well and neither did his followers.
It’s never nice to be spoken to in an unpleasant manner, in real life or online, and it can be mentally upsetting particularly for the very young or those with chronic illness. The seeping in of negativity from online to everyday life once seemed ridiculous to people, but the potential real world damage is becoming clearer.
The lady below points out several entirely plausible things that qualify him as a potential cult leader, and she’s not the only one, but is it also possible she’s seeing them because…well…she doesn’t like him? Or is she right?
And yet… a YouTuber forming a cult doesn’t seem completely impossible. Back to the vegans.
About a year ago troubling aspects of a group known as Raw Till 4 became evident. Led by a very angry pair known as Durian Rider and his girlfriend Freelee (or Diddly Rider and Free Pee as one dissenter refers to them), the Raw Till 4 diet promotes eating large quantities of raw carbohydrates until 4 when you can… eat cooked carbohydrates? I’m not sure. They set up a vegan festival in Thailand where anyone could go and discuss all things vegetably and raw, before in-fighting and accusations of sexual predation (apparently projection on Durian Rider’s part) caused the entry rules to become stricter and stricter, and those on the fringe were denounced as ‘fake vegans,’ until only a hardcore few meeting all the requirements were allowed to attend. Some began noticing the health advice, among other things, was perhaps not up to par:
However the thing that most worried people was the video of a young girl, 16 at the time, defending the pair. She has a history of eating disorders and apparently blindly followed the pair’s teachings. Notice in the video below the moment she brings up concerns from her doctor and Durian Rider tells her to “ignore your doctor, just listen to the king and queen.”
So yes, I don’t think it’s beyond the scope of possibility. I think we ought to be aware, though, of hysteria and making things fit to our way of thinking. Adam Curtis says, after all, that the internet is “an echo chamber, reflecting our beliefs back at us.” But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen…