Jake Paul, without question, sucks. He has for years. The prolific YouTuber, 23, has scammed his viewers into buying merchandise that never arrived, turned his Los Angeles neighborhood into a “war zone” because he kept lighting furniture on fire in his yard, offered “Financial Freedom Movement” classes that, like most of his ventures, contained no substance despite costing $20 a month, and has at least one ex alleging what certainly sounds like emotional abuse.
Unsurprisingly, Paul is now showing his whole ass again, this time for allegedly looting a mall in Scottsdale, Arizona, during a protest against police brutality. The now-deleted footage, shot by his videographer Andrew Blue, shows Paul walking through the closed, largely empty mall as people around him started vandalizing stores. Paul doesn’t appear to be doing much of the damage himself, but he also doesn’t appear to be there for reasons beyond filming something for his own YouTube channel. (And fellow YouTuber Elijah Daniel pointed out that Paul was “on camera with a bottle of vodka looted from a PF Chang’s.”)
I don’t doubt that Paul was tear-gassed in the middle of a riot. I just don’t feel that sorry for him.
No one is really taking Paul’s presence at the protest as anything other than another one of his stunts. He wasn’t with the group of black-led protesters in nearby Phoenix, and it’s pretty clear from his history that he was just there to watch a fight and profit off it. After all, this is how Paul makes his money: He creates videos that are bombastic, sometimes aggressively stupid, and monetizes them, meaning he gets paid for every view. He’s unkind and unthinking. He messes up constantly, barely apologizes, and then restarts the cycle.
Paul posted a statement on Twitter Sunday morning after the footage went viral. (On the Notes app, no less, the most cursed form of celebrity apology.) “Neither I nor anyone in our group was engaged in any looting or vandalism,” he wrote. “For context, we spent the day doing our part to peacefully protest one of the most horrific injustices our country has ever seen, which led to us being tear-gassed for filming the events and brutality that were unfolding in Arizona.” It’s possible that Paul was, indeed, “strictly documenting, not engaging,” but his claim that he wanted to genuinely witness a protest about police brutality against black people certainly rings hollow when the person doing it got caught rapping the n-word in 2018. (The term “rapping,” here, is being used incredibly generously.) I don’t doubt that Paul was tear-gassed in the middle of a riot. I just don’t feel that sorry for him.
This isn’t the first time Paul — or his brother, Logan Paul — have tried to profit off human suffering. The last time Logan got in big trouble was for filming a dead body in Japan’s “suicide forest” in 2018, and a brief perusal of Jake Paul’s history shows that his perspective on social issues ranges from limited to totally nonexistent. Do you want to take your cues on protest etiquette from someone who once said that anxiety is self-manifested?
Beyond Paul’s 20 million YouTube subscribers, he also has 13.1 million on Instagram and 3.7 million on Twitter. He is constantly posting something, usually multiple videos a week that garner millions of views each. He is prolific, and despite being uninteresting, he has a rabid fandom. He could do something meaningful with his massive platform, but no. Instead, like clockwork, every few months, he does something that gets him in trouble, and he revels in it. Because to Paul, attention — good or bad — is all the currency he wants.
I’m as guilty of giving him that as anyone else — as a journalist, I’ve contacted Paul’s representatives to ask for profile access or interviews for a story every time he does something stupid. The term “cancel culture” gets thrown around a lot, a buzzword that rarely means anything because the people who have been supposedly canceled still get to do standup at establishment clubs, still get major motion picture roles, and still get to write books. But in the world of YouTube, you really can cancel someone by refusing to give them your time and your energy.
YouTube doesn’t work like print or online media, nor does it work like television or podcasting. There’s a direct relationship between how many viewers and subscribers care about Jake’s content and the money he makes from those monetized videos on YouTube and the money he then brings in from Instagram, and the affiliate deals, and the invitations to MTV red carpets or the iHeartRadio Music Awards. Paul was, for years, a relative nobody posting videos online to modest attention, mostly because of his semi-famous brother. His career has been a domino effect; first the videos became popular, then the viewers came, then the brands offered sponsorship money, then the money got absurd, then the career exploded. Unlike other forms of media, viewers are often the gatekeepers. Not entirely, of course, but they do control many aspects of who gets to become famous on YouTube.
It’s abundantly clear that YouTube will never divest from its racist or sexist talent. Felix Kjellberg — better known as PewDiePie — has routinely been accused of anti-Semitism and racism but still has 105 million subscribers. Jeffree Star, who made $17 million on YouTube last year, has weathered every storm despite repeatedly being accused of racism, bullying, and crummy business practices. People like the Paul brothers will always have a home there, so long as YouTube pretends it can be a neutral platform while cities across the country burn because police keep killing unarmed black people. After so many otherwise career-ending errors, Jake Paul’s business remains undisrupted; in 2018, he was the second-highest-paid YouTuber, earning $21.5 million and getting 3.5 billion views.
Jake Paul is a wretched flower that only grows when someone looks at him.
But still, Paul’s audience has a remarkable amount of control. For someone like Paul, his career could vanish as quickly as it began if people just stopped watching his videos. If he no longer has millions of people subscribed to his YouTube channel, then the attention wanes, then the business deals stop coming in, then advertisers stop paying him, and he has much less incentive to pull idiotic stunts for more videos, for more attention, for more money.
The money is great, I’m sure, as is the ability to not have a 9-to-5 job. I’m sure it’s very cool to feature a famous porn star in your little videos. But what Paul craves the most is for all eyes to be on him. It’s why he prattles on about his maybe-real-maybe-fake marriage, or why he courts speculation about how he lost his own virginity, or why he suddenly decided to be a boxer, or why he keeps making these Sesame Street–ass rap music videos. Jake Paul is a wretched flower that only grows when someone looks at him. He doesn’t care if the attention is good or not. It’s not actually important for him to apologize and learn from past mistakes, because his mistakes translate into views.
Maybe it feels silly to try to hold someone like Paul accountable for how casually he enters and exits a conversation about police brutality. But for most of his career on YouTube, Paul has represented a particular kind of white privilege. Paul thinks he can waltz through any space — even a deeply meaningful protest, one that isn’t for him — and do whatever he wants without reproach. He thinks it’s his right to profit off the activism and pain of black people in America. But the best way to get the message across that Paul can’t do whatever he wants is simple: You just have to stop watching. ●