Content Warning: Child abuse and neglect
Ruby Franke, a Utah mother of six, was arrested and charged with six child abuse charges on August 30, 2023. What’s especially notable about her arrest is the deep history of her abusive behavior documented on their family YouTube channel, 8Passengers, since 2015. The Frankes were one of many “family vlog” YouTube channels, where the primary source of content is parents filming their children going about their daily lives. Advertisers on YouTube love this “family-friendly” “content”. Therefore, YouTube loves it, too.
Franke vlogged the day-to-day lives of her children, even when having serious discussions about the children’s misbehavior. She used these moments as an opportunity to film humiliating her children, who are much too young to understand that their lives are on the internet forever. Some extremely jarring clips uploaded to YouTube included Franke telling her daughter she is going to cut the head off of her stuffed animal while the child cries, taking away her son’s bedroom for seven months, and forcing him to sleep on a bean bag on the living room floor, among countless other embarrassing and emotionally draining moments. Franke’s abuse was available for public viewing. And it made her money. Millions, according to a tearful admission on her second YouTube channel, ConneXions.
This has all happened before. DaddyOFive, another family vlogging channel, focused on Heather and Mike Martin pulling pranks on their children. The pranks were far from harmless; they were abusive. DaddyOFive’s actions were scrutinized after a prank where Heather poured invisible ink on her son’s carpet, gaslit him into thinking he had done it until the child was visibly distraught, and Mike had his sobbing child tell the audience to like and subscribe.
The DaddyOFive channel was terminated in July 2018 following the Martins’ conviction on charges of child neglect in September 2017. The channel remained monetized from the time of his conviction to the channel’s termination. YouTube released the following statement after the termination: “Content that endangers children is unacceptable to us. We have worked extensively alongside experts in child safety to make sure we have strict policies and are aggressively enforcing them. Given this channel owner’s previous strikes for violating our Guidelines prohibiting child endangerment, we’re removing all of his channels under our Terms of Service.”
The Martins were sentenced to five years of probation, and retained custody of three of their five children. In an apology on Good Morning America on April 28, 2017, they justified their actions by stating that they were putting on a “show.”
Despite YouTube saying in 2018 that they were carefully monitoring content that may endanger children, 8Passengers flourished throughout the DaddyOFive saga. In 2020, Ruby Franke was accused of abuse and was visited by Child Protective Services. The Frankes successfully defended themselves, despite a myriad of videos on YouTube bringing light to the abuse taking place. It took three years following this wave of allegations for Franke to be arrested alongside her business partner, Jodi Hildebrand.
YouTube’s quickest action in response to the arrest was terminating two channels associated with Ruby Franke and banning her from uploading on the platform ever again. YouTube has also turned a sharp eye to users reuploading the deleted content from Franke’s online footprint. “If we’re made aware of a channel that is reuploading content from a previously terminated channel, we may remove that content,” according to YouTube’s statement, “or terminate the new channel if it’s dedicated to reuploads.” However, a quick search will result in plenty of clips of 8Passengers on YouTube, drawing further scrutiny to how closely YouTube is monitoring their content.
The monetization of DaddyOFive and 8Passengers makes one thing clear: post your kids, up the shock value, and be rewarded. YouTube is dangling an incentive to families to make money by exploiting their children—and they have taken the bait. To them, the amount of money they bring in is enough justification for the mistreatment of their children. Do advertisers, whose ties with YouTube provide the cash flow, care?
Advertisers first wielded their power over YouTube in February of 2017, when the most-subscribed person on the platform, PewDiePie, was posting antisemitic hate speech. The first “Adpocalypse” had begun. Some of YouTube’s biggest advertisers, such as Amazon and Johnson & Johnson, pulled out after realizing their advertisements could be paired with videos promoting extremism, violence, and hate. Swiftly, YouTube enacted vague demonetization rules that saw creators being smited for what the algorithm deemed to be “Not Advertiser-Friendly”.
This first Adpocalypse created a slippery slope for YouTube. Needing to protect their bottom line and satisfy advertisers, three more Adpocalypse events occurred between February of 2017 and December of 2019. Notable moments include a January 2018 move to restrict channel size in relation to advertisement eligibility, crackdowns on content involving children in 2017 and 2019, and advertiser reaction to YouTube allowing the upload of Logan Paul’s infamous video showing a dead body.
The fourth and most recent Adpocalypse expanded Youtube’s definition of hate speech after Vox reporter Carlos Maza pressured the company to demonetize conservative political pundit Steven Crowder’s channel. Therefore, May of 2019 saw the demonetization of several conservative YouTube channels, and in December 2019, YouTube updated its anti-harassment and bullying policies.
It is clear why algorithms demonetize gamers who use hateful language or channels that show excessive violence. But what happens when a family vlogging channel, often safely categorized in the monetizable bucket, shows excessive violence?
A notable Adpocalypse event occurred in November of 2017, when YouTube removed ads from nearly 2 million videos and removed over 50,000 channels posting disturbing content that somehow was able to be labeled “family-friendly.” These channels largely produced content surrounding toys, but featured grotesque depictions of violence or inappropriate behavior for children. But what happens to the monetization program in 2023, which has broadly protected family vlogs as family-friendly content, that instead are richly documented cases of child abuse?
If YouTube enforced their guidelines, clearly these family vlogging channels would be demonetized, or altogether removed from the platform. Instead, YouTube seems to only respond with policy changes and action once advertisers make their moves. Is the fifth Adpocalypse on its way? Keep an eye on the companies that advertise on YouTube—not YouTube itself—and you’ll know.
This article was edited by Emory Olander and Hannorah Ragusa.