BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield, and now belatedly hashtag MeToo reaches the world of online mega influencers.
DOBRIK I was completely disconnected from the fact that when people were invited to film videos with us, especially videos that relied on shock for viewers or whatever it was that I was creating an unfair power dynamic, I did not know this before. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD David Dobrik is a 24-year-old YouTube sensation whose 27 million social media subscribers have viewed his skits more than 9 billion times. That's billion with a billion. His oeuvre is heavy on stunts and practical jokes involving his bro-crew called the vlog squad, who are something like a repertory company, something like a posse, something like frat boy clowns who transgress at other people's expense because it's just so hilarious. Like this 2017 bit where Dobrik tricked a friend into thinking he was going to jail.
DOBRIK What do we do? Do we call your parents? Who do we call?
KING No, let us call you.
DOBRIK Do you have a lawyer?
KING No, I want you to get a lawyer because I don't want to be part of this situation.
DOBRIK Matt, do not raise your voice with me right now. You are embarrassing me in front of these fake police officers, [CHUCKLES]. It's a fake cop car. [LAUGHS MANIACALLY] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Dobrik happens to be a very skilled creator and editor who also happens to be a young man who is willing to push the stunts into full on exploitation. Caution, the excerpt that follows is the precursor to what may have been a sexual assault.
DOBRIK We invited these girls over to have a fivesome, so hopefully we have a fivesome tonight. [someone in the background yells TA-DA!] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The episode was about persuading young college women to engage in a menage-a-trois with one of the vlog squad: Dirty Dom. Unearthed by journalists, the story behind the video threatens to topple an empire. Kat Tenbarge is a digital culture reporter for Insider.com, who broke the story about the vlog squad sexual predations.
KAT TENBARGE David is the boy next door. He's behind the camera, but he's extremely empathetic and good natured and somebody who always seems to have the right take on whatever is going on. Jason Nash is like the creepy older uncle who hangs around, but nobody's really sure why, except that he is David's right hand man. David is in his mid 20s. Jason is in his late 40s.
JASON Get away from the f*ckin car, or I will single handedly punch each and every one of you in the face. [EVERYONE LAUGHS] You understand?
DOBRIK Jason, Jason, come on, they're just children. Oh, my God. David's the best. [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE Then you have Corinna Kopf who is the classic objectified woman who's just there to be the butt of a lot of jokes about her appearance and her sex life.
CORINNA I made a hundred thousand dollars this month.
FRIEND You made a -- WHAT?
JASON Oh my God.
FRIEND Are you f*ckin serious?
DOBRIK Who do you have to thank?
CORINNA My boobs.
DOBRIK Your boobs?
CORINNA Hey! I want on the record that it also has a little bit to do with my personality.
DOBRIK But very little. [MANIAC BRO LAUGHTER]
KAT TENBARGE You have people like Jeff. Jeff is a former convicted felon. He is – the joke is that I'll always go back to jail.
JEFF [addressing a large crowd] Be quiet, I want to say one thing...I got Botox one time! [crowd erupts in "Whoa!"]
BOB GARFIELD And finally, Dirty Dom, who, according to your piece, allegedly raped a 20-year-old college student in 2018. But in most of his videos, his sleaziness is intended to be, you know, funny.
DOBRIK We just met Dom's date, she's around the corner, she doesn't want to be on camera. Why I'm confused, though, is why she's here at 1 a.m.
DOM To see my Pokémon collection.
DOBRIK Is that true?
DOBRIK What's one of the Pokémon’s in your Pokémon collection?
DOM Gonorrhea? [MANIAC BRO LAUGHTER] [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE Dom's character is built off of the idea that he is playing a character, that it's just a joke. The sex addict who loves to do drugs and it's always played for laughs that Dom hooks up with girls who maybe weren't actually that interested in him in the first place, or that he creeps on the younger fans. But then that became something more of a reality.
BOB GARFIELD I want to go back to the November 2018 video that's at the heart of your exposé, Dirty Dom with these young women he's invited to the apartment.
DOM I invited these girls over to have a fivesome. So hopefully we'll have a fivesome tonight. [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE So when Hannah got to the apartment, she was aware that they were meeting up with YouTubers. She thought that she would be meeting people who her friends thought were really cool and funny, and her immediate reaction was that they were actually kind of gross and objectifying.
HANNAH I have to let you guys go. I don't really know any of you just –.
DOM Get the f*ck out of here! Get her out! [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE As the night progressed, Hannah felt like she was, you know, having a drink with these guys, getting to know them on a slightly deeper level. Ultimately, she ended up getting drunk to the point where she couldn't remember those interactions.
BOB GARFIELD Then David cuts in with narration.
DOBRIK After a couple of minutes of talking, it was clear, there was no fivesome happening tonight.
FRIEND He called it.
DOBRIK But by some stroke of luck and master negotiating, Dom made progress. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD We then see two of the women walk off camera down the hall with Dirty Dom, and then it cuts to some of David's friends, you know, trying to get a sneak peek in the room.
DOBRIK We just need to get in there and do a head count for the vlog.
JEFF OK, yeah. OK, all right. Alright, we got we got 3 in there [MANIAC BRO LAUGHTER] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What happens next is left to the imagination, except that the video ends with one last shot of David in the front seat of his Tesla. And a couple of his boys in the back.
DOM I just had a threesome, and I think we're all–
JEFF ...going to jail. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Although not necessarily. The woman, who in your piece you call Hannah, has not pressed criminal charges. Do you know why?
KAT TENBARGE Yes. When she first started to process and define what happened to her that night as rape, Hannah told me that she did some of her own research looking into what the legal process in California would look like. And because she was so incapacitated that night and because she herself could not remember a lot of the key details of what actually happened in the bedroom, she felt like going through the legal process wouldn't necessarily result in the kind of justice that she was looking for. In the days that followed, she just tried to forget. And then when the vlog actually came out, Hannah struggled to process not only what her friends had told her about what had happened, but with what she was seeing on screen and more importantly, with what everyone else was seeing on screen. That first day that the video came out, it got over eight hundred thousand views and people came up to Hannah at the coffee shop and at the library to tell her that they had seen her in David Dobrik's vlog. And for Hannah, what was portrayed on screen was not something that actually happened. It looked like she had had a really fun night hanging out with these guys that ended up with a consensual sexual act. In reality, she was just beginning to grasp the fact that, in her eyes, she had been raped.
BOB GARFIELD The scenario you're describing sounds like the classic case of date rape.
KAT TENBARGE I believe that if Hannah brought the details of this story to the court, it would be in her favor. The California law explicitly states that somebody who is not married to the person that they're having sex with cannot consent if they're at a state of incapacitation where they can't recall what actually happened to them.
BOB GARFIELD There was this other wrinkle. The only member of the vlog squad who would speak to you on the record was Jeff Wittek, who is the guy we see peeking into the door and reporting the 3 people in the bed. So, you were talking to him, unbeknownst to you, he was recording the call?
KAT TENBARGE Yes. After the story was published, late at night, it was about 9 p.m, Jeff texted me and asked if we could talk. And I agreed. I picked up the phone and we had about a 30-minute conversation during which he asked me if I felt sorry that he was receiving a lot of backlash for his inclusion in the article. He told me that people online were referring to him as a rapist and a pedophile and calling him all sorts of names, and I apologized that I had to hear that he was experiencing something undeserved because I never said anything in the article that would imply he was.
JEFF Are you sorry that like you wrote, you worded it that way, though. Like it sounds like...
KAT TENBARGE I mean, I'm sorry to hear it, because ultimately, like, I had to do that for my job. Like, that's just what I had to do with the information. [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE He uploaded it in a YouTube video with the framing that I was apologizing for, making statements about him that were based on non-credible sources.
BOB GARFIELD How about Hannah herself? How did you locate her? As much as this video was distributed hither and yon in social media, she remained an unknown. How did you put a voice to her?
KAT TENBARGE In the year following the video's release in 2019, she reached out to somebody that I know in my professional network first, and at that time the person saw that she had a story but that she wanted to be anonymous. And so that person felt like it wasn't the right time for an anonymous account against the vlog squad to come forward because it was such a popular group of YouTubers.
BOB GARFIELD Was it because your colleague’s publication just didn't want any part of an anonymous source and Insider.com was willing to hear her out?
KAT TENBARGE Yes, essentially, the other reporter worked at a legacy publication where you had to have a really high degree of newsworthiness to grant somebody anonymity, and typically at that type of legacy publication, they would only grant anonymity to somebody involved in, say, a major political scandal. But at insider, because we are sort of in a position where we're able to view digital culture as something that's equally as important to us as a major political scandal, we were willing to do the corroboration to allow her to have an anonymous voice.
BOB GARFIELD And this gets to the question of the media's, the especially the mainstream media's understanding of the influencer economy and culture. It is vast. The media don't seem, to even now, take this world seriously.
KAT TENBARGE A lot of people in media, fully are unaware of the reach and the types of content and the types of fan base that these creators have. For example, everyone my age, I'm 23. Pretty much everybody that I know could tell you a lot about the different sources that I had in my article. The members of the vlog squad, the people who discussed my story on their YouTube channels. These are our household names. But to even just a barely older generation, these people are total strangers. And even if someone knows who David Dobrik is, they probably haven't watched his content. So I think there's a gap there in terms of who journalists see at the forefront of power, of money, of fame and who younger people in a younger generation see.
BOB GARFIELD Kat, thank you so much.
KAT TENBARGE This was a great conversation.
BOB GARFIELD Kat Tenbarge is a digital culture reporter for Insider.com.
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