A behind-the-scenes look at how Insider reporter Kat Tenbarge investigated rape allegations against a member of David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad

Kat Tenbarge
Insider reporter Kat Tenbarge.

  • 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.

The YouTube star David Dobrik has 18.7 million subscribers and lucrative sponsorship deals that have allowed the 24-year-old to purchase a $9.5 million mansion in Los Angeles.

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.

Following the report, Dobrik published an apology video in which he said that consent was “super, super important.”

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.

You can read Tenbarge’s full story on sexual-assault allegations against a Vlog Squad member here.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Insider’s Yeji Jesse Lee dishes on covering the booming psychedelics industry

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Insider’s Yeji Jesse Lee.

  • Insider is taking you behind the scenes of our best stories with our series “The Inside Story.
  • This week, we spoke to Yeji Jesse Lee who covers the psychedelics and cannabis industries. 
  • So what exactly is it like to cover psychedelics? Read on. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

You focus on the emerging cannabis and psychedelics industries at Insider. How did you fall into that? What’s your background? 

I began covering the cannabis industry on sort of on a whim. Back when I was in grad school, South Korea ended up legalizing medical cannabis. It seemed like a big deal to me, especially considering how conservative the country was when it came to “illicit substances,” but I was barely seeing any coverage of the news. 

I ended up wanting to write the story myself, so I pitched the idea to a cannabis-focused trade publication, they loved it, and I ended up freelance writing cannabis stories. When I saw that Insider was hiring a cannabis reporting fellow a bit over a year ago, I applied and then began to cover the industry here, first as a fellow and then full-time.

During my first month at Insider, I tagged along as my colleague Jeremy Berke spoke at a psychedelics panel alongside some of the biggest industry leaders at the time.

I wrote about the event, not knowing whether or not there would be any interest in the topic. But we quickly saw that there was a readership.

My focus on psychedelics has grown as the industry has burgeoned over the past year. Whereas in early 2020, there were hardly any public psychedelics companies, today there are dozens; investor money is flowing into the industry and institutional interest has peaked in recent months as these companies gear up to develop and bring psychedelics-based treatments to market.

So….”psychedelics.” What exactly do you write about? 

The answer to this question has changed over the past year- whereas in early 2020 there were only a few compounds that companies were focusing on, psilocybin and MDMA being some of the main ones, the list has now expanded. I’ve since covered companies working with mescaline, DMT, LSD, Ibogaine, and others.

What’s your favorite part about your job? 

I love feeling like I’m part of an industry that is growing alongside me. A year ago, hardly anyone had heard about the potential of psychedelics as treatments for mental illnesses, despite the promising academic studies that had gone on around half a century ago. Today, serious companies are valued at more than $1 billion and even smaller startups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to build out their businesses.

How has the scope of your beat changed as marijuana and psychedelics have increasingly become legalized? 

It’s definitely kept me busy. The November elections were a game changer for the industry, as five states voted to legalize cannabis in some form or another and Oregon became the first state in the US to decriminalize all drugs– which has since prompted other jurisdictions to consider doing the same. The legislative changes keep me on my toes because no one is really sure what’s going to happen in the coming months and that leaves lots of doors open.

What do you think increasing legalization of psychedelics means for the war on drugs?

It means that more and more people are acknowledging the detrimental effects the war on drugs had on the world. Decriminalization and legalization are two very different things- one means ending criminal penalties for drug use and possession while the other potentially would create  a market for these substances outside of a FDA-regulated pathway – but I think both signify a sort of shift in mentality that we’re having as a larger society where we’re seeing these compounds in a different light. 

Where do you see the industry in 5 years? 

It’s so hard to say. With cannabis especially, there is a lot that’s riding on the legislative changes we’re expecting to come down the pipeline in the coming years. I don’t foresee the industry slowing down at all despite what happens (or doesn’t happen) on the federal level, but whether cannabis will be a fully legal drug in the US in five years’ time, like it is in Canada, remains to be seen.

In the psychedelics space, it’s a little easier to say because most of these companies are trying to develop drugs through the FDA pathway, meaning they’re not dependent on any legislation to really shape out what their industry could look like in the coming years. In five years time, I think we may potentially have one or two psychedelics-based medications on the market – based on the timelines that some companies have provided – but there’s also a chance that the drug development process could take much longer, meaning things, wouldn’t look vastly different then than they do today. 

You can read some of Yeji’s stories here:

The world’s largest cannabis companies are jockeying to dominate the lucrative US market. 7 top CEOs and executives break down the deals you can expect.

What to know about the major public psychedelics companies, including a guide to their business models and when they expect to sell medications

Meet the top 14 psychedelics startups raising the most cash to develop new ways of treating depression, addiction, and more

Here are the 26 hottest cannabis startups that are set to take off in 2021, according to top investors

Read the original article on Business Insider

How reporter Rob Price got an inside look into Gaia and its world of conspiracy theories and alternative media

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Rob Price is an investigative reporter at Insider.

  • Insider is taking you behind the scenes of our best stories with our new series, The Inside Story.
  • This week, Insider’s Grace O’Connell-Joshua spoke with tech correspondent Rob Price about his recent investigation into Gaia, a streaming business with a wild catalog of conspiracy theories, new-age mysticism, and yoga.
  • You can read Price’s full story here.

Insider correspondent Rob Price is known for his hard-hitting investigations into some of the tech industry’s most secretive companies. His reporting into how Facebook obtained 1.5 million users’ email data without their consent prompted an investigation by the New York attorney general, and a story on Instagram’s lax privacy practices caused the company to alter its platform.

He’s written about deceptive sales practices at Yelp and taken readers inside Mark Zuckerberg’s family office.

Price spent more than four months digging into his most recent story, about the conspiracy-theory-peddling streaming service Gaia: “Gaia was a wildly popular yoga brand. Now it’s a publicly traded Netflix rival pushing conspiracy theories while employees fear the CEO is invading their dreams.”

Below, Price spoke with Insider fellow Grace O’Connell-Joshua about how he stumbled into the story, the rise of misinformation on the internet, and the role of Facebook in popularizing platforms such as Gaia.

Your story on the rise of Gaia is astounding. You describe the company as a “catalog is a kaleidoscopic array of wild claims, conspiracy theories, and new-age mysticism” and say that some of its employees are scared of its CEO invading their dreams. How on earth did you come across this story?

I’ve been interested in new-age belief systems and how they’ve been bolstered by the internet for a while, and I joined a bunch of increasingly esoteric Facebook groups with an eye to writing about these communities. Doing so apparently put me into an unusual advertising bucket, and I started getting constant ads from Facebook and Instagram by Gaia. 

The company, its content, and its mission sounded intriguing, so I decided to make a few calls to insiders around November 2020. It quickly became clear there was a fascinating story here.

I then spent the next few months talking to dozens of current or former employees of the company, to build up a comprehensive picture of its history, operations, culture, and mission.

Many readers have never heard of Gaia. Why do you think this story is so important to tell?

I found it an important, interesting subject on a bunch of levels.

It’s an exploration of how misinformation can be monetized on the modern internet – and what happens when that misinformation invades the workplace itself. It’s the story of an accomplished and unusual serial entrepreneur, and the companies he has built.

It’s a microcosm of a broader trend in the new age/wellness/spirituality space, of the intersection between wellness and conspiracy theories, and how people in the former space can be radicalized into the latter.

What was it like talking to employees? Were they forthcoming with you about their experiences?

Like employees at many companies I speak to, workers were hesitant to speak publicly about their experiences because of concerns of professional, legal, or personal consequences. It’s why most of our sources asked for, and were granted, anonymity to talk more candidly about the company and their time there.

You covered Facebook for a long time. In this story, you report that Facebook played a big role in helping Gaia garner more subscribers through sophisticated advertising tools. Do you think Gaia would exist without Facebook?

These belief systems long predated Facebook, and would continue to exist even if Facebook closed down tomorrow. But it’s clear that Facebook’s advertising platform played a huge role in allowing Gaia to grow to the size it has over the past few years – 700,000-odd paying subscribers around the world.

In 2017, Facebook even boasted that Gaia was a “success story” that made particularly good use of its services to grow.

Do you think Gaia and platforms that propagate conspiracy theories will continue to flourish, given that Facebook is now saying it’s trying to crack down harder on misinformation?

Yes. Gaia is doing well financially, and it’s clear that there’s a big and growing audience for its content. And sections of its content around yoga and spirituality aren’t misinformation by any definition of the term, with growing audiences interested in them.

But part of what’s fascinating about Gaia is how its content is a spectrum from fitness through to secret Nazi moon bases, and that can lead to people inadvertently following more and more extreme material.

What’s your favorite part about being an investigative journalist? And the hardest?

I love the variety. I can go from digging into misleading sales practices at Yelp to new-age mysticism, from looking into the blood-donation industry in India to Facebook’s failures to protect users’ data. It’s permission to follow my curiosity and dig into a thousand interest worlds.

The flipside of that is needing to be able to convince people to open up and entrust me with their stories, often on extremely serious and consequential subjects.

Read Price’s story: “Gaia was a wildly popular yoga brand. Now it’s a publicly traded Netflix rival pushing conspiracy theories while employees fear the CEO is invading their dreams.”

Read the original article on Business Insider