On the last day of 2017, YouTube star Logan Paul posted a video of a dead body in Aokigahara, more commonly known as Japan’s “suicide forest.” The vlog followed Paul and his friends as they encountered the body of a man who, like hundreds of others, had taken his own life in the popular tourist destination. In between Paul’s comments about the seriousness of suicide, the camera zooms in on various parts of the body, while Paul occasionally cracks jokes or laughs. “I think this definitely marks a moment in YouTube history,” Paul said in the original video — a statement that proved true, though likely not in the way he had imagined.
The backlash to the video has been swift, with media outlets, celebrities, and other YouTubers fiercely criticizing the decision to upload the video. Paul has since taken down the vlog, and issued an apology statement and video in response to the criticism.
“The goal with my content is always to entertain, to push the boundaries, to be all inclusive,” Paul says in the video, where he claims he “didn’t do it for views,” but rather wanted to raise awareness for suicide and suicide prevention.
For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Paul is a popular YouTuber with more than 15 million subscribers who first gained widespread popularity on the now-defunct platform Vine. His early posts were a mix of fairly tame goofs: physical comedy like slipping on banana peel slip, twerking in space suits, or falling off treadmills. He’s since leveraged his popularity and stunts into brand promotions, a clothing line, music, and acting gigs, landing appearances on shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and films such as The Thinning and The Space Between Us.
Paul has been profiled by publications like Wired, Adweek, and Business Insider, where he has been open about his aspirations of fame. "I want to be the biggest entertainer in the world,” he told Adweek in 2016. “...I want to be a pioneer. I want to be one of the first digital stars to make the transition to traditional media." On YouTube, the 22-year-old vlogs about his daily life, from trips to Disneyland to buying giant pumpkins.
Logan has historically been the least controversial of the Pauls. His brother, fellow social media star Jake Paul, has garnered his fair share of negative attention as well, including a viral news report that included details about Jake terrorizing neighbors with furniture bonfires and constant swarms of fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the social media star. At VidCon 2017, Logan infamously hid $3,000 around the convention, a stunt that drew a fan mob that ended with security attempting to remove him.
The recklessness of Paul’s latest video carries particular weight in the context of reports that younger viewers are more influenced by social media stars than traditional celebrities or media, and the phenomenon of “suicide contagion,” where sensational coverage of suicide can also put vulnerable members of the audience at even greater risk.
Unlike Hollywood celebs, who typically have PR firms to help them navigate their interactions with the public, or journalists, who (ideally) have well-established editorial and ethical guidelines, the appeal of many YouTubers lies in their perceived authenticity and off-the-cuff reactions. When your brand is built on boundary-pushing stunts and a rapid (even daily) production cycle with little oversight, it’s easy for good judgment to fall by the wayside.
In his Twitter apology, Logan Paul notes that “I do this sh*t every day. I've made a 15 minute TV show EVERY SINGLE DAY for the past 460+ days. One may understand that it's easy to get caught up in the moment without fully weighing the possible ramifications.”
Paul is not the first YouTuber to learn that a massive following comes with social responsibilities, nor will he be the last. The controversy has renewed questions about YouTube’s role in addressing the abusive and inappropriate content that often proliferates on its platform, and particularly how it responds when its most famous stars violate its stated standards.
YouTube’s biggest star, PewDiePie (who has since published his own video criticizing Paul’s decision to vlog a dead body), gained notoriety over the last several years for using racist slurs in his videos, paying two Indian men to hold up a sign that read “death to all Jews,” and making various off-hand Nazi jokes, though none of these offenses managed to dislodge him from the platform. Although Disney cut ties with the content creator and YouTube canned his original series, PewDiePie’s YouTube audience is still nearly 59 million subscribers strong.
Despite numerous calls on Twitter for YouTube to ban Paul for posting the inflammatory content, this outcome seems unlikely. According to fellow YouTuber Philip DeFranco, YouTube has since issued a lukewarm statement about its general policies on “sensational” and “disrespectful” content, and emphasized its partnership with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
As DeFranco points out, however, “His core audience doesn’t give a fuuuuuuck. Unless youtube does something, this doesn’t hurt him.”