Dan Avidan, co-host of YouTube channel GameGrumps, was accused recently of grooming underage fans. As more information has come to light, the black-and-white judgement that at first seemed easy to make has become more complicated. The muddy waters have me asking myself: as a fan of an online personality, when is it okay to question the story of an alleged survivor of their abuse?
Never, is the instant gut reaction that I have to that question. I want to say that it’s never okay to doubt and nit-pick the story of someone who says that they have endured something so terrible, and is choosing to talk about it. I want to be able to think that every single time someone appears to have taken that monumentally courageous step, it’s always the truth. It’s hard enough, I find myself thinking, to come forward, without petty little quibbles about dates when texts were sent and who said what exactly to whom, as in the case of Dan Avidan.
And yet the reality is that sometimes people are accused of things in ways that turn out to be more complicated than they initially appear. This is true with Avidan, where the current evidence of his grooming is a single non-sexual message sent to a minor, and then sexual messages and a video exchanged with the same person four years later when they were twenty-two and capable of consenting to sex. The person with whom the texts were shared was not the person who shared them and made accusations against Avidan based on them. The apparent frailty of this evidence of grooming is compounded by the fact that the original poster of the Reddit thread that accused Dan Avidan has admitted they think the evidence is too thin and some leaps were made. A few days after the initial accusation trended on Twitter, no new evidence has come to light, and Avidan has made a statement denying that he has ever engaged in exploitative or illegal sexual activity.
None of this is to say that Dan Avidan definitely isn’t abusing the power balance between creator and fan to leverage sexual gratification for himself: it’s only to say that immediate certainty on this point just isn’t possible based on the evidence that’s out there right now.
To complicate the issue further, the subreddit where the thread was originally posted is notorious for posting false information about the GameGrumps in retaliation for the departure of one of its original co-hosts, JonTron. The racism displayed by JonTron, during his time on the GameGrumps channel and afterwards, is reflected in the views of many of his supporters on the subreddit. With Avidan being Jewish as well as the replacement of their fave, he’s been the target of various malicious threads on the subreddit in the past.
All of this is starting to sound like a defense of Dan Avidan. And as I read through posts and tweets all taking different angles on the issue, I questioned over and over whether each time I found something in support of Avidan, it was wishful thinking and offensive to his accusers to even consider it. As someone who’s enjoyed a limited amount of GameGrumps content in the past and so only had vaguely positive feelings towards Avidan before this, I still side-eyed myself hard. My worries were definitely shared by others online, who were expressing disgust at the thought of Avidan being defended or the accusations being critically considered rather than taken in good faith and believed without question.
It’s easy to see where this attitude comes from: fans so often find it all too easy to look for evidence that their faves are in the right, and jump into a furious defense at the cost of survivors’ reputations and wellbeing. This is particularly true of famous cis men being accused of wrongdoing, and their fans dog-piling the people – usually women – who have accused them. Survivors’ names get dragged through the mud, their histories scoured and leaked, their lives and their families’ lives threatened. This isn’t controversial to say. We know this happens. In fact, for those of us who were around during Gamergate, we know that in some parts of the online gaming circles where Dan Avidan makes his living, women don’t have to be survivors to be doxxed and harrassed: they only have to exist. Kickback against that culture feels as though it has to be strong and without question.
Not only that, we’ve also seen so many big players on the YouTube stage be toppled by more substantiated accusations of sexual misconduct, particularly in the last seven years. 2014 saw the implosion of a whole circle of big British YouTubers, maybe most notably with the allegations against Alex Day and Sam Pepper. Since then, there have been alarmingly regular discoveries of similar predatory conduct across the platform. In 2020, the YouTube gaming community saw popular creators such as Cryaotic and Mini Ladd accused of sexual abuse of their fans, which they both went on to admit to. In response to the continuing instances of abuse, there has been a general cultural shift among many fans in the last few years towards radical belief of alleged survivors who come forward.
It makes sense, so much sense, to want to offer survivors the certainty of being believed if they speak. Particularly for fans who are ourselves survivors, we know the difference that unquestioning belief can make when we first come forward. The anger directed at any doubts or querying of the alleged survivor can so often be traced back to compassion, to the desire to stand up for the unknown and the oppressed against the famous and the powerful.
And yet there exists the uncomfortable and complex reality that false accusations can be, and are, made against famous and powerful people.
Perhaps we can all agree that there is no identity, and no experience, that automatically makes you a morally perfect person and therefore sets everything you say above analytical thought. People of any gender and any level of fame can tell lies, big and small. People of any gender and any level of fame can be abusive and perpetrate the worst of crimes. Survivors of one kind of abuse can lie about experiencing another kind of abuse. While the power balance of male celebrity and female fan makes a certain type of abuse more likely, it does not guarantee it. And a deeply infuriating and unsettling consequence of sexual abuse allegations in the online community being taken more and more seriously is that they are an increasingly effective weapon in the hands of manipulative and abusive people. At the intersection of sexual misconduct allegations being believed more often and anti-Semitism, for example, it’s possible one might find what’s happening with Dan Avidan. Analytical thought and doubt, then, become not just okay, but even necessary.
And that analytical thought doesn’t have to lack compassion or understanding. As a culture, currently, we’re used to the idea that the places where all sides of an issue are supposedly given a fair hearing – our courts of law – are steeped in unfairness. For many, a so-called fair hearing has become synonymous with the deeply-rooted bias that our legal systems show towards certain demographics in our society – especially in cases of sexual abuse. When it comes to these systems, many of us are past the point of even hoping for sensitivity or objectivity, let alone trusting that we’ll see them. But as individuals, perhaps we can trust ourselves to think deeply on something while still showing care and empathy in a way that our systems of legal action simply can’t in their current form.
It’s a form that’s only growing more outdated as the world moves faster and faster. The accusation of grooming against Dan Avidan is one that, like so many accusations against YouTubers and online personalities, could have played out privately in legal proceedings, if we lived in a world with more developed structures that had earned public faith. But without those structures, in that void of justice, these situations play out in the court of public opinion. The only thing fast enough to keep up with accusations that trend online is the opinions of the social media users who add to the hashtags.
And in those hashtags, we see justice for survivors being fought for on an individual level with a deeply understandable urgency and desperation. What fans say and do in these situations has in the past been seen to have a very real effect, and so it does feel as though it matters how we each choose to act. We’ve seen instances of predators being brought to account simply because the online pressure was so loud that it couldn’t be ignored. And we’ve seen times when online abusers have received no visible consequences for their actions, but their names have become bywords for abuse in a way we can only hope will bring awareness and protection to people who would otherwise have been vulnerable.
It’s easy to see consequences like these and think, this is what we always have to aim for, and if a few innocent people get run over on the road to justice, then it’ll be worth it – especially as ‘cancel culture’ rarely sticks anyway, and anyone who’s innocent will be back on their feet and making money again within a few months.
On the one hand, I can almost find myself agreeing. On the other hand, sweeping ends-justify-the-means morality on such a grand scale about such an important topic will inevitably leave people falling through the cracks. Although our legal systems are corrupt and broken, they represent an idea that we as a society have about justice: that it should be done on an individual basis, with a personal and intimate understanding of the details of the case before a judgement can be made that will change the life of the accuser and the accused.
This level of intimacy isn’t easily achieved on Reddit, or Twitter, or Tumblr, with information always piecemeal and often taken out of context – and with so many of those interacting being hugely biased, too, because inevitably those who pay the most attention to the topic as it trends will be the fans of the famous person who’s being accused. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of going to a football match and asking the crowd to decide which team wins, without the match itself ever being played with the rules and regulations in place that ensure impartiality. And yet still, it’s perhaps the best shot survivors currently have at some form of justice, when the football match’s rules are always broken and the game is always rigged.
Simply put, when it comes to accusations of sexual misconduct, users of social media are not qualified for the job that we’re being forced to do by the lack of a decent alternative. And yet until we have recourse to a more developed legal system for online and sexual abuse that has earned a decent amount of public trust, we are going to see these scenarios play out again and again. More people are going to be accused, and it will be down to each of us as individuals to decide what we’re going to do about it. Being a fan of any well-known person, at this point in time, means opening ourselves up to the possibility of one day having to play jury at the online hearing for their misconduct – and how we’ll act and what we’ll say will change lives for better and for worse, to varying degrees depending on the size of our online followings, and all the while we’ll be operating with limited information and no chance of objectivity. Even saying nothing will have an effect; there is no ducking the role.
Under that kind of pressure, perhaps we can allow each other at least the possibility of investigating accusations, thinking critically and compassionately about their source and context, without letting down the alleged victims. Being able to admit to ourselves that we are not going to be able to be unbiased must, though, always be the first step, and the driving force towards a system of justice for these situations that doesn’t in any way rely on the opinions of the fans of the accused.
Author: Em Rowntree
I’m a non-binary writer, teacher, and cat-lover from the UK.
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