Across YouTube, an unsettling trend has emerged: Accounts are publishing disturbing and exploitative videos aimed at and starring children in compromising, predatory, or creepy situations — and racking up millions of views.
BuzzFeed News has found a number of videos, many of which appear to originate from eastern Europe, that feature young children, often in revealing clothing, placed in vulnerable scenarios. In many instances, they’re restrained with ropes or tape and sometimes crying or in visible distress. In other videos, the children are kidnapped, or made to ‘play doctor’ with an adult. The videos frequently include gross-out themes like injections, eating feces, or needles. Many come from YouTube ‘verified’ channels and have tens of millions of views. After BuzzFeed News brought these videos to the attention of YouTube, they were removed.
In recent weeks, YouTube has faced criticism after reports about unsettling animated videos and bizarre content, which were aimed at children using family-friendly characters, and some of which was not caught by YouTube Kids’ filters. All of the videos reviewed by BuzzFeed News were live-action, ostensibly set up by adults and featuring children. Taken together, they make up a vast, disturbing, and wildly popular universe of videos that — until recently — existed unmoderated by the platform.
That appears to be changing. On Tuesday afternoon, BuzzFeed News contacted YouTube regarding a number of verified accounts — each with millions of subscribers — with hundreds of disturbing videos showing children in distress. As of Wednesday morning, all the videos provided by BuzzFeed News, as well as the accounts, were suspended for violating YouTube’s rules. YouTube told BuzzFeed News that the deletions were part of a scheduled effort to combat this type of content and that some of the accounts and videos provided by BuzzFeed News were already scheduled to be purged.
“In the last week we terminated over 50 channels and have removed thousands of videos under these guidelines,” YouTube said in a statement. All of the videos featured below were still up as of Tuesday evening.
According to YouTube, the deletions are part of a bigger effort to weed out exploitative content on the platform. Last week the company terminated ToyFreaks, a massively popular account run by Greg Chism for videos that bordered on child abuse. The account featured videos of Chism’s daughters screaming in fear, bathing, pretending to be babies, spitting up food, being force-fed, and ‘peeing.’ The account had 8 million followers around the time YouTube shut it down.
In a company blog post Wednesday afternoon, YouTube pledged to address the issue comprehensively by fixing gaps in its enforcement policy. Starting today, the company is purging accounts that — like ToyFreaks — appear to show child endangerment. It is also age-restricting cartoons and animated videos that feature kid-friendly characters engaged in bizarre or adult situations.
The company is also cracking down on advertising on videos that feature family entertainment characters engaged in violence. According to YouTube, the company has removed ads on 3 million of these videos since June. The site also plans a new initiative to disable all comments on any videos featuring children in exploitative situations. According to YouTube, if a video featuring children begins to populate with inappropriate comments, the site will disable the comment thread for that video. The company will also be providing guidance for creators who make family-friendly content in the form of some written instructions. Lastly, the company said it would work with child safety experts to continue to identify troubling trends like this one, which the company allowed to thrive on its platform for years. Many of the offending channels were even verified by YouTube — a process that the company says was done automatically as recently as 2016. The company says it has re-evaluated the verification process to add more human oversight.
Before YouTube removed them, these live-action child exploitation videos were rampant and easy to find. What’s more, they were allegedly on YouTube’s radar: Matan Uziel — a producer and activist who leads Real Women, Real Stories (a platform for women to recount personal stories of trauma, including rape, sexual assault, and sex trafficking) and who provided BuzzFeed News with more than 20 examples of such videos — told BuzzFeed News that he tried multiple times to bring the videos to YouTube’s attention and that no substantive action was taken.
On September 22, Uziel sent an email to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and three other Google employees (as well as FBI agents) expressing his concern about “tens of thousands of videos available on YouTube that we know are crafted to serve as eye candy for perverted, creepy adults, online predators to indulge in their child fantasies.” According to the email, which was reviewed by BuzzFeed News, Uziel included multiple screenshots of disturbing videos. Uziel also told BuzzFeed News he addressed the concerns about the videos early this fall in a Google Hangout with two Google communications staffers from the United Kingdom, and that Google expressed desire to address the situation. A YouTube spokesperson said that the company has no record of the September 22nd email but told BuzzFeed News that Uziel did email on September 13th with screenshots of offending videos. The company says it removed every video escalated by Uziel.
This video, from the account “Mister Tisha,” features a man in a clown mask who abducts and forcefully jams a young child into a washing machine.