January 24, 2018

Elsagate Hellscape: The Dark Underbelly of YouTube Kids

By CWS

Take a look at the video below. This is one of the seemingly infinite number of unnerving videos aimed at children found on YouTube Kids. These videos masquerade as innocent and seem harmless enough, but keep watching. One Reddit user titled a post about this video as 'Ding Dong Hell,' and I think you’ll see they meant.

As much arguing as we see daily online, I think that we can all agree on one thing: the Internet is a weird place. It is more darkly bizarre than we could have ever imagined. Take the recent controversy over impossibly popular YouTube star Logan Paul’s Suicide Forest video, in which he uploaded footage of an actual dead person who had just committed suicide, the rest of the video complete with squeaky toy sound effects and ridiculous Shrek hats.

IPads have quickly replaced televisions as the inanimate babysitter in many American families and families abroad. Parents leave their children alone to scroll (with an almost creepy proficiency) through the millions and millions of available videos on YouTube Kids, a special offshoot of YouTube that promises safe and educational content. Just like regular YouTube, one video leads to another in an unknowable algorithm, one that can eventually reach a strange underbelly full of familiar kid’s characters in situations that Disney would never approve. Some are Claymation videos featuring injections and injuries or urination and defecation, some are real adults acting as Elsa/Spiderman/Joker with fetishy sexual undertones, others are crude animations featuring characters buried alive, the use of machine guns, and eventually, Hitler. In some cases, children star in videos made by adults that border on abuse.

This phenomenon is what has come to be known in that last few months as “Elsagate,” named for Elsa of Disney's Frozen, one of the most popular kids characters often used in this type of content. Videos that fall under this category are low-budget and quickly-produced, often created by bots in other countries and developed using keywords that help rack up the highest possible number of views. The combination of their cheap animation style, automated creation, and exploitation of beloved children’s characters creates a quietly disturbing picture of just where the Internet can go without at least some regulation. Of course, this is a very fine line to walk, so we need to be careful when talking about any kind of censorship. But, follow me down this rabbit hole, and you might see what I’m talking about, as well as what Reddit, and now YouTube and Google, are finally paying attention to. The most important thing to remember: these videos are targeted at very young children.

Now, I think it’s valuable to point out that YouTube Kids is pretty odd in general. Technology and culture writer James Bridle did a fantastic exposé on Elsagate last November, and I use some of his examples of videos in this article. One of the most popular channels, that has racked up over six billion views, is nothing more than a pair of adult hands slowly unwrapping various Kinder eggs and similar toys with a surprise inside and then displaying them slowly for the camera. It’s... fine. I mean really, there is nothing explicitly wrong with it. But still, it does have some kind of odd hypnotic quality that feels somehow sinister, but I'm a little cynical. Take a look:

The Finger Family Song is a perfect example of the algorithmic quality of these videos that are primarily created by bots. The bots take keywords and themes to pump out thousands of similar videos. The result? It almost becomes an incantation, a creepy dark spell that is sears its way into any mind. There are over 17 million versions of this nursery rhyme on Kid’s YouTube.

Now, I am definitely not speaking out against the above videos. Though they creep me out and make me question the influence they have over growing minds, they are ultimately harmless. But as I stated above, the hours of clicking from video to video, going deeper and deeper into the web of keyword salads, might eventually land a kid somewhere else:

You end up with a Finger Family song starring Hitler. The Internet’s darkest nature is always a slow leak into white supremacy. Needless to say, no child needs to see Hitler’s disembodied head on a woman’s bikini clad body dancing with a skeleton.

You may also end up watching videos with real people, some adults and some children. The most well known example of this is the now banned channel called Toy Freaks, starring a wide-eyed, bald father and his two daughters, who all act like babies, sucking on pacifiers, and creating “gross-out” content, sometimes stuffing various desserts into their mouths until they appear to vomit. The Reddit community was able to get Toy Freaks removed through their targeted effort of reporting videos that exploit or psychologically harm children. Again, these videos aren’t exactly the worst things we can expect our kids to come across, but there is more.

Even more nefarious examples exist. The now banned channel Freak Family featured videos of kids crying and in pain and even bleeding, part of the Bad Baby genre popularized by Toy Freaks. Look at the keywords of this video, it would have been easy for a kid to stumble onto:

It’s clear that the primary motivation in the creation of these videos, just like everything else, is profit. These videos, full of keywords of Disney and superhero characters, full of the same infinitely repeating songs that children seem to become addicted to, rack up billions of views, and thus are bestowed with pre and mid-roll ads, and that's where the money’s at.

Thanks to James Bridle's work, as well as the dedicated community of the subreddit r/Elsagate, many of these channels have been shut down in the last couple months, their videos banned or marked as adult content. Once Bridle got the ball rolling, articles began appearing in Forbes, the New York Times, BBC, The Verge, and more, forcing YouTube and Google to crack down on the videos that were explicitly abusive, sexually inappropriate, or violent. China has also recently launched an initiative to ban inappropriate videos to the tune of Elsagate. Of course, YouTube probably won't be tackling the strange bot-produced videos like Ding Dong Bell, and how could they? Just because adults find a video creepy doesn’t mean it breaks any rules. And that’s fine, as long as they are starting to pay attention to the content they peddle to children for profit. However, there are still tons of these videos out there, and the Reddit community continues to target these accounts and report videos on a massive scale to alert YouTube and get them banned.

Here’s an example I found today after about three seconds of searching:

In the above video you will see the clay Hulk punch glass and see pieces of it sticking out of his hand, then you’ll see a disembodied human hand wearing a rubber glove remove the pieces with rusty pliers. You’ll see baby Hulk’s hand bitten off by an alligator while an unnervingly authentic child’s scream is heard.

Toward the end of the video you will see Peppa the Pig, one of the most popular children's cartoons of all time, a character immediately recognizable, as well as immediately safe, in the minds of modern kids. Peppa is another wildly exploited character, and these crude remakes include injections and blood, odd surgical scenes, and storylines in which Peppa drinks bleach or eats her father. In the above video you’ll see Peppa Pig fed a pill by the same rubber-gloved human hand, an image I found particularly upsetting and dangerous to normalize. If I am freaked out by this content as an adult, I can only imagine what it can do to a kid’s mind as it is still developing an understanding of how to navigate the world.

Now, we are already deep into the strangeness, already creeped out, so why not go a little further? The Reddit community and the alarmist conspiracy theory crowd have a few ideas about this content that are truly terrifying to consider, and also, pretty unlikely. I know we don’t need another #PizzaGate, and the Reddit community knows this as well, being as careful as they can to approach these theories without inciting hysteria. Could there be evil intentions behind this content, intentions to groom children to be more easily abused? There are certainly people that believe these videos teach kids “learned helplessness,” in which people are exposed to painful experiences or content repeatedly, and eventually learn to accept it. These videos normalize behaviors like injections, pills, violence, coercion, etc, all with the safe faces of characters that children have grown to love. No one really knows who is making these videos, but it’s some combination of artificial intelligence and human creation. Could people be making these videos with the intention of grooming kids? Some Redditors have even wondered if “color programming” could be taking place, something used in cultic mind control, and then it spirals out from there. I won’t be following.

There’s something else. The now-banned channel Toy Freaks was targeted specifically at children, but it became obvious that it wasn’t just children who were watching and commenting on these videos. The focus of Toy Freak's content was often children in simulated pain or duress, overeating or vomiting, in bathtubs and bathrooms, and seemed attract adults who wanted to watch that kind of content. I have no idea what the intention was behind these videos, and I highly doubt that the creator was making these videos for pedophiles to view and comment on, but the fact is, it happened. The real motivation was probably money, but it can be easily asked: at what cost?

Regardless of the intention, whether they are just profit-driven AI creations gone wrong, or human-led monstrosities made to harm children or prepare children to accept harm, I think we can probably agree that they aren’t what we want our kids to be consuming while their minds are at their most vulnerable. If I walked in on my toddler watching Ding Dong Bell, a very mild example of Elsagate, I would probably never let my kid on YouTube again. As James Bridle said at the end of his Medium essay: “This is being done by people and by things and by a combination of things and people. Responsibility for its outcomes is impossible to assign but the damage is very, very real indeed.”