VidCon Controversy Continues YouTube’s Descent Into Drama

Carl Benjamin, a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad, attending the Women Online panel at VidCon 2017.

2017 has been an incredibly difficult year for YouTube, and nowhere has this been best exemplified than at this year’s VidCon event.

An annual conference organized by Hank and John Green of the popular channel VlogBrothers, VidCon has routinely been a pleasant space in which YouTube creators can meet with their fans, host panels and stage Q&A sessions, reaching out to their audience IRL rather than from behind an iPhone screen. However, this year’s VidCon was staged in the midst of what is steadily becoming a civil war (albeit with more vloggers and GoPro cameras on the site), with the increasingly politicized nature of online discourse having bled into the video-sharing site so much that its financial bottom line has been hit, with advertisers boycotting as a result of hate speech and derogatory content uploaded to it. Inevitably, VidCon was the next stage for this ongoing battle, and the event was not without its controversy.

Anita Sarkeesian, one of the creators of the feminist media critic channel Feminist Frequency, appeared in a few panels across the event including one intended to discuss the presence of women online. During this panel Carl Benjamin, more commonly known as Sargon of Akkad on YouTube, sat himself in the front row of the audience alongside a selection of his friends. Sargon, one of the most notable anti-feminist figures on YouTube, has made a habit of frequently criticizing Anita during his videos and live streams, sharing an audience typically made up of GamerGate supporters and self-described “anti-SJWs” who make up the vast majority of Anita’s critics. As a result, Anita viewed his decision to sit in the front row of his panel as deliberately hostile, addressing Sargon as a “shithead” while talking on the panel, along with referring to him as a “garbage human.”

The footage can be seen below:

In a blog post published following the panel, Anita wrote:  “He showed up with several others; together, his group took up the two front rows at the panel. Their presence was plainly not, as one of them later said in an “apology” video he posted to Twitter, to “give us the chance we never gave them” and to “hear us out,” but was instead to intimidate me and put me on edge.”

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In a video posted following the incident, Sargon argued that rather than him harassing her as she had claimed, he was the one who had been harassed as a result of her calling him a garbage human in front of her audience. “I was sat quietly anticipating an interesting discussion, but instead Sarkeesian decided to use her position of privilege as one of VidCon’s featured creators to launch an unprovoked tirade of abuse, after singling me out specifically to bully, culminating in her calling me a ‘shithead’ and a ‘garbage human,'” he said. He used the video to call for oraganizers Hank and John Green to remove her from the cyber-bullying panel she was set to attend later that weekend, though she ultimately went ahead with participating in the panel.

Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian.

Sargon later appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast, discussing both Anita and the VidCon incident at length for the better part of an hour before the host intervened; after Sargon began to discuss a “group of people” who “hate me” because “they know I’m right,” an incredulous Rogan replied: “Are you talking about Anita Sarkeesian again?” Rogan continued: “I just feel bad that she’s not here defending herself.” Sargon then went on to add that journalists were claiming that he had “stormed the stage and started screaming abuse at her.” When Rogan said that he’d look at an article to corroborate Sargon’s claims, Sargon added: “There probably aren’t any yet, but I bet you tomorrow there will be articles about me and some of them will say something like ‘I abused her.'” Rogan replied: “Pause. Pause. Pause. Do you not understand the irony that we’re talking about people labeling themselves as victims, and you’re labeling yourself a victim of a crime that has not been occurred?”

Watch the segment of the podcast below:

VidCon’s response

VidCon’s founders have now responded to the controversy, expressing that while they did not appreciate the language used by Sarkeesian in her panel and her public addressing of Sargon, they also understood the complexities of the situation and agreed that Sargon and his cohorts’ actions were likely an attempt to intimidate her. In response, Sargon tweeted that the organizers had not contacted him for comment on the issue.

The relevant portion of the statement from VidCon reads:

“There is a fairly prominent genre of social/political commentary on the internet that focuses on specific individuals as a path to attack ideas and build outrage. These creators do not violate harassment policies, but the result is often that the vitriol of their followers ends up focused not on ideas, but on people (usually women.)

Many people in these communities end up believing the righteous thing to do is threaten, harass, and dox the thinkers they’re arguing with. Whether or not this is an intentional strategy to cultivate harassment or an awful side-effect, the result is some of the worst discourse and most intense harassment on the internet.

This year, we had a contingent of attendees (some who paid, some who snuck in with fake passes) who had been either perpetrators of this harassment, or had, for years, watched as the outrage they cultivated resulted in followers doxxing, harassing, intimidating, and even threatening the lives of the creators on these panels.

It is difficult to imagine that this group of people (who are aware that their channels have been base-camps for years of harassment of some of our panelists) did not realize that their arriving early to fill up the three front rows of a panel was going to be intimidating. In any case, it looked like intentional intimidation to most people in attendance, and the panelists were understandably on edge throughout the discussion.

During the panel, a panelist called out one of the audience members for being someone who has made her life very difficult, and wished she didn’t have to give him attention because he was a “garbage human.” Look, we don’t want our panelists to insult our audience members, even when we completely understand that the comment exists in a much broader (and pretty messed up) context. Even when people have said hateful things that everyone in our office disagrees with, we have a policy, and it exists not just to protect people at the show, but to protect our ability to have these conversations.”

The statement then added that Hank Green had told Anita that her comment had violated VidCon’s policy, but also apologized for not having been “more active and aware of the situation” which had “resulted in her being subjected to a hostile environment that she had not signed up for.”

For those who have been following the ongoing YouTube controversies over the past few months, that VidCon was home to yet another high-profile incident between two of its notable names should be of no surprise. With YouTubers becoming increasingly political as the site is placed under scrutiny by key advertisers, YouTubers’ self-defeating descent into drama continues to harm the perception of the site, with it being inevitable that it would bubble over into reality during the annual event.

Like an ouroboros, YouTubers continue to eat their own tail by pursuing outrage and controversy for views, leading to other video makers on the site being harassed by sections of their audience in the process, while making the site a difficult prospect for advertisers to consider investing in. 2017 was the year that the YouTube bubble arguably burst, but rather than helping it take off the ground again, the site’s community is continuing to help poison it.

Paul Tamburro is Crave’s UK, Tech and Gaming Editor. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulTamburro.