- Insider is taking you behind the scenes of our best stories with our series The Inside Story.
- This week we’re spotlighting Insider digital-culture reporter Kat Tenbarge, who made big waves with her investigation into rape allegations made against a member of YouTube star David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad.
- You can read Tenbarge’s full story here.
In an investigation published last week by Insider reporter Kat Tenbarge, Hannah (not her real name), who was featured on Dobrik’s YouTube channel, said she was raped by a member of his friend group, known as the Vlog Squad, in 2018.
In the wake of Tenbarge’s investigation, brands including Dollar Shave Club, EA Sports, and Door Dash have cut ties with Dobrik. On Sunday, Dobrik also stepped down from the board of Dispo, a photo app he cofounded.
Here’s a look at how Tenbarge broke the story.
You cover influencers and follow the Vlog Squad closely. How did you come across Hannah’s story?
I started digging into the Vlog Squad after two former members spoke out about toxicity in the group, from calling it a cult to accusations of sexual assault. While reaching out to people who were involved in the group, I had conversations with other reporters who have covered the Vlog Squad. One of those conversations unearthed a tip from a couple of years ago about a woman who said she was raped by a member of the Vlog Squad. I was put in contact with her, and we started talking. Eventually her story would become Hannah’s claims.
How long did it take for the story to come together, and what was the hardest part of reporting it?
From my first conversation with Hannah, it took just under two weeks for this story to get published. Sometimes investigations take months, but part of what made this story so fast-paced was the timing. There was a growing online backlash to the claims that were already brought forward publicly by former Vlog Squad members, and I wanted to make sure Hannah’s story came out at the peak of that interest.
The hardest part was making sure the most crucial element of the story – the rape accusation – was kept under wraps. I spoke with top YouTubers during the reporting process, and I didn’t want the claims to leak ahead of time.
Were there legal hurdles you needed to navigate?
Yes. This is my third time investigating rape accusations, and the most difficult part often involves bringing those claims to the accused and dealing with pushback. This time, we didn’t get a response from the man who was accused of rape. But we did hear back from David Dobrik’s lawyers, and part of the reporting process was responding to the issues they took with our story. Ultimately they provided a statement to us, which we included in the story.
Your investigation was picked up widely, both on YouTube and on mainstream celebrity sites like People and Vulture. What feedback did you get from readers?
The response was, fortunately, overwhelmingly positive. As I said, timing is everything with a story like this. If it had run a few years ago, at the height of the Vlog Squad’s popularity, the response would likely have been very different. But readers were already uncomfortable with what former Vlog Squad members were claiming. Hannah’s story cemented the idea that the environment Dobrik created was dangerous. This time, an innocent bystander got caught up in that.
It also helped that Hannah and her friends who spoke with me had plenty of evidence to back up their claims. The text Hannah sent Dom Zeglaitis – the man she accused of raping her – in particular struck a chord with readers. A lot of survivors of sexual assault or rape said they felt this piece resonated with them.
Influencers like the Vlog Squad and the Paul Brothers continue to make millions through their fratty “bro culture” videos and podcasts, even following the #MeToo movement. Why do you think this type of content is still so popular with viewers?
One reason is that a lot of their viewers skew young. Kids, tweens, and teenagers often have different standards than adults for what qualifies as entertaining or admirable. Young viewers may think it’s impressive to have sex with a lot of women because they’re not emotionally mature enough to consider the perspective of someone like Hannah, who was objectified throughout the video. But it’s not just young people who consume misogynistic content, and not every viewer of the Paul Brothers or Vlog Squad likes the content they’re seeing.
A side effect of YouTube’s click-driven culture is that even negative comments and dislikes boost watch numbers and watch times. It’s a phenomenon that has led to a lot of controversial people finding profit and fame online, even if they’re widely looked down upon.
Do you think there is a culture among YouTubers to do almost anything for views and clicks? Where are the boundaries when it comes to creating compelling content and exploitation?
There is undeniably a culture of pushing moral, legal, and ethical boundaries for clicks. We see this all the time, from invasive family vlogs to dangerous pranks and stunts. YouTube as a company isn’t big enough to moderate every single piece of content that gets posted, and it doesn’t have rules that govern every single form of exploitation. So what ends up happening most of the time is that the boundary and consequences are decided by the audience.
When Logan Paul filmed a dead body, the mainstream media condemned him, and YouTube followed suit by temporarily demonetizing his channel, which prevented him from making money from advertising on his videos. But when there isn’t a huge backlash that results in a loss of income, influencers learn they can get away with harmful clickbait, even if it seriously hurts people.
What are the biggest themes to watch right now on the influencers beat?
Every beat boils down to power – who has it, and how they use it. Right now I’m looking at a landscape of influencers who have fame, money, and a unique position of power over their fan bases. There aren’t as many mainstream gatekeepers when it comes to online content, and as a culture we’re starting to recognize the consequences of that. The major theme I’m looking out for is abuse of power in relationships between influencers and their fans, their industry, and each other.
I’m also exploring how social-media platforms are manipulated by users, and the responsibility platforms have as publishers. There is so much left to be uncovered on this beat because this industry operates in the limelight. It’s everywhere, but few people are looking past the shiny superstardom to see what goes on in the shadows.