As someone who posts YouTube videos about fat acceptance and body positivity, Jude Valentin is unfortunately used to seeing negative comments. But that's never stopped her from doing her work.
"I’m very loud about it and I’m not ashamed of it, because we all need to start somewhere," she told BuzzFeed News.
Recently, though, the negative comments took a particularly hateful turn. Valentin noticed one of her videos getting more vitriolic comments than usual. At first she didn't know what was going on, but then she saw one of the comments mentioned a compilation video.
Valentin did a search and found that one of her vlogs had ended up in a "fat acceptance cringe" video.
Cringe videos are big on YouTube, with many having views in the millions. Typically, the goal is make the viewer cringe at the content due to how awkward it is. Some of these are pretty innocent, like editing together awkward moments from the nightly news or talk shows.
Others, however, are much crueler and target certain groups of people by pulling clips from their personal vlogs or social media channels. The targets of these compilations are often fat activists, like Valentin, but they also go after feminists and trans, nonbinary, and gender-fluid people.
Other groups like anime enthusiasts or furries also appear, as do earnest TikTok users. Generally the target is anyone the creator deems to be a "special snowflake" or "social justice warrior" and doesn't fit their standards of attractiveness.
Whoever the target, the goal is clear — mockery. And there seems to be little recourse for victims of these videos to get them taken down.
In Valentin's case, the compilation she was included in took her entire vlog, splicing in other clips and the odd reaction GIF.
"I think the most disheartening part of it is this person has 16,000 subscribers. I have barely 2,000 subscribers," said Valentin.
"I’m struggling to make ends meet. That’s the most frustrating part."
The video's creator told BuzzFeed News that those depicted "probably see themselves as victims" but said he made the video to spread "awareness that there is a movement called fat acceptance."
"I in no way tell my viewers to attack any of the people in my videos. I don't encourage it. When someone in my comments asks for a channel name, I never give it to them. I will never tell my viewers to harass anybody," he said.
Valentin reached out to YouTube directly but was told the video didn't break any policies. YouTube didn't return a request from BuzzFeed News for comment.
"At YouTube, we understand the value of free expression and take great care when we enforce our policies," the company told her via direct message on Twitter. "As such, while we will take down content that crosses the line into threats or harassment when flagged, not all negative videos or comments will be removed."
Considering the video directly led people to attack Valentin in her comments, she was not satisfied with the reply.
"Yes, the person in the video is not telling me to go kill myself, and they have a harassment disclaimer," she said, "but that doesn’t stop their followers from going and harassing me."
Her next option would be to file a copyright strike against the video, but even that has complications. Doing so would reveal her full legal name to the compilation creator, which she fears could expose her to doxing.
"It’s hard when activism is involved because we are so, so hated on the internet, and people are just ready to be nasty and unleash out private information and be spiteful and not treat us like people," she said.
Compilations like the one Valentin ended up in often come with some sort of "fair use" disclaimer at the beginning, but lawyer Leah Norod said that's not a "get out of jail free" card.
"'Fair use' is a bit of a buzzword that gets thrown around by people that don’t necessarily understand what it means," she told BuzzFeed News. Norod is an associate attorney at Romano Law, a firm that specializes in entertainment business law.
"It’s defense, it’s not a right."
For something to be considered fair use, it would generally need to be a short clip accompanied with enough commentary that transforms the finished video into a new product.
"In the example you have, the guy inserted one reaction for every 10 minutes," said Norod.
"If we’re using this guy’s specific example, it would be like uploading the entirety of Avengers: Endgame and having one clip of the end of me saying 'boo.'"
Although some states now have cyberbullying laws, it's unlikely that cringe compilations would fall under them, since the original content wasn't bullying in nature.
But that doesn't mean these videos aren't bullying. Shaheen Shariff is a professor at McGill University and the director of the Define the Line research program, which examines cyberbullying.
"I always talk about beginning the line. In this case they have definitely crossed the line and can be sued under various different legal options."
Legal action, of course, may be beyond the means of those depicted in these videos. Shariff said cyberbullying like this is a pervasive issue online that often targets already marginalized people.
"Ultimately cyberbullying, as I’ve always said, is about a lack of education, and it’s really embedded in our culture, in our society," she said.
It all begs the question, though, of why people make these compilations in the first place.
Sameer Hinduja is the codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University. He said the people who make these videos obviously have little regard for the feelings of the people they include.
"I think the motivation behind it just has to do with clicks and views and follows," he told BuzzFeed News. "But maybe there’s other cases of people where they just want to inflict all kinds of pain."
He said they may also be motivated by insecurity — they're struggling in their own lives and bringing people who are confident in themselves down a peg makes them feel better.
"It provides some kind of twisted, cathartic element, and it’s just sad. And we know it’s sad and juvenile," he said.
As for Valentin, she said she took a day to pout and cope, but she's not going to let this stop her from doing her work as she decides if she'll take further action.
"I’ve done too much, I’ve come too far, that bullies are not allowed to affect my world," she said.
"People are going to harass me no matter what, and they can’t win."