Tati Westbrook and James Charles drama displays the danger of YouTuber exposés

James Charles /Courtesy

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Nowadays, it seems like all YouTube beauty gurus are doing is crucifying one another. Last year, the beauty bloggers Manny MUA and Laura Lee took heavy blows to their careers after subtweeting Jeffree Star for past racist remarks and uploaded lackluster apology videos. In June, Makeup Geek CEO Marlena Stell posted a video attacking fellow beauty influencer Jaclyn Hill for the alleged unhygienic nature of Hill’s cosmetics. And this May, 20-year-old beauty blogger James Charles had his reputation ruined after influencer Tati Westbrook uploaded a scathing exposé.

In every instance, these accusations obliterated the reputation, and in some cases the career, of the beauty guru being attacked. Manny MUA and Lee’s range of job opportunities were significantly reduced, Hill has been deemed untrustworthy, and Charles’ subscriber count has never recovered from the hit from Westbrook.

Calling celebrities out for their abhorrent actions is important, as it adds accountability to their industries — which is the guise under which exposés operate. But the YouTube community assumes that users are guilty until proven innocent, giving YouTubers the ability to destroy livelihoods with the click of a mouse.

A perfect instance of this is the Charles-Westbrook drama. Essentially, Charles promoted the vitamin brand SugarBearHair, a competitor of Westbrook’s brand Halo Beauty, despite her continuous support of him. Westbrook then uploaded a 40-minute video exposing Charles, insinuating that he preys on straight men. Charles initially responded by uploading an eight-minute apology, but he did so without refuting Westbrook’s claims. Furious internet users decided that Charles was “canceled,” and over three days, he lost almost 3 million subscribers.

This all changed, however, when Charles posted another response video, providing “receipts” (screenshots of text messages) that cleared every allegation made against him. Suddenly, the digital audience was sympathetic to Charles — even though they had, hours before, hated him more than any other beauty guru.

What the Charles-Westbrook feud displays, more than anything else, is how easily the minds of today’s online masses can change. With a single video, though without any veritable proof, Westbrook easily convinced the internet that Charles was a sexual predator. And she managed to do so without raising much suspicion at all.

But why? Why do YouTube communities readily take sides and become so vicious?

YouTube’s celebrities experience fame in a distinct way compared to their counterparts in other industries. Dedicated viewers are incredibly attached to their online idols, as YouTube fosters a sense of intimacy — videos are conversational and often filmed in bedrooms. So, when drama occurs in a fan’s YouTube community, they can easily treat the incident like drama within their own friend group.

Mob mentality enhances this issue. When everyone else is attacking the same person, joining feels like becoming part of a community. This is especially prominent online, as anonymity allows users to disregard responsibility for what they say. What all of this amounts to are feelings of anger and betrayal, the same emotions that fueled the feud between Westbrook and Charles. And with the great power such beauty gurus wield over their so-called friends, a career can be destroyed with a single post.

For example, Westbrook, hurt over the vitamin sponsorship, decided she wanted revenge and posted the aforementioned exposé. What she may have not realized, however, was just how potentially devastating such an upload would be. In the offending video, she states that she still loves Charles, suggesting that she wanted vengeance but not a complete takedown. The latter is what her actions amounted to, however. Westbrook impacted not only Charles’ relationships within their YouTube circle but also his professional reputation.

This is why it’s so problematic for YouTubers to publicize their falling-outs online. Throwing out hurtful allegations just because one is hurt is not acceptable — especially when the consequences for the other person involved are so serious.

Westbrook’s attack wasn’t a solitary incident — soon after the drama, Deji, a popular British YouTuber, uploaded an eerily similar video attacking his own brother, KSI. Of course, soon after that, KSI uploaded a response, his rebuttals providing the feud with another dimension. YouTubers today feel comfortable tearing down other celebrities, including those who are literally family. They can toy vengefully with their former friends’ emotions, relationships, reputations and careers — and the results can be devastating and permanent.

Currently, the YouTube court of justice rules that a person is guilty until they are proven innocent. But there’s a reason U.S. courts don’t operate like this. Before forming an opinion, internet users must first look at all of the facts and not disregard the evidence on the other side. They must craft their opinions on their own, without being influenced by unreliable sources. Discrediting the “guilty until proven innocent” mentality by waiting to hear from both sides of the argument will foster a healthier internet environment.

Contact Diana Piper at [email protected].