Joseth Francois, 26, is more widely known on the internet as Seth, an influencer who was part of megafamous YouTuber David Dobrik's Vlog Squad. The crew of content creators often filmed the banality of their lives and the hijinks they'd pull on each other — making them pioneers of what's now become typical YouTube content.
But now, after almost four years and 10 million views, Francois is unpacking his experience from one "prank" video with Dobrik, saying it was sexual assault. He's also reckoning with the realization that he was used as the punchline for racist jokes as the only Black member of the squad.
Francois told BuzzFeed News he's speaking out now to "reverse the damage" and to prevent incidents like this from happening in the industry again.
"I honestly didn't realize how much that situation affected me until the beginning of last year when COVID happened," he said. "I remember sitting in my room in Atlanta and I was thinking to myself, That video was wrong. I just felt like that shouldn't have happened to me."
Dobrik and his team did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Francois first shared his allegations on H3 Podcast earlier this month. There, he recounted an incident to hosts Hila and Ethan Klein where he felt "pressured to participate in bits that [came] off culturally insensitive." In one sketch a few years ago, when Francois was an active member of Vlog Squad, he was asked to open a refrigerator, only to find watermelon spilling out.
At the time, he said on the podcast, his association with the successful YouTube collective made him feel like he couldn't say no to these sketches.
"It was an unwritten thing where you see a pattern of people saying, 'Yo, I’m uncomfortable with this,'" he said. "All of a sudden they disappear and they’re not in videos anymore."
Francois told BuzzFeed News in an interview Tuesday that being written into sketches like this enabled fans to openly make racist jokes about him.
"I had fans on my page putting my face on pieces of fried chicken — stuff that was pretty disgraceful," he said. "I was at a breaking point, thinking, Maybe it's just my friends and they're not really tasteful. Maybe it's my job to educate them."
After the pandemic was declared and as Black Lives Matter protests were taking place last summer, Francois spent time reflecting and processing the various levels of trauma he had experienced while part of Dobrik's Vlog Squad.
"The most horrific experience, and I am still experiencing trauma, is that bit with Jason Nash," Francois told BuzzFeed News. Nash didn't respond to a request for comment.
In June 2017, Dobrik published a video titled "HE THOUGHT HE WAS KISSING HER!! (SUPER CRINGEY)" that's now been watched almost 10 million times. In it, Dobrik says he's going to pull a prank on Francois by making him believe he's making out with another Vlog Squad member, Corinna, who was supposed to be wearing a disguise. In reality, he was making out with another member, Nash, who was the person in disguise.
Francois said he never gave consent to the kiss with Nash. And at the time, he said, he wasn't sure how he felt about it, just that it felt "wrong."
He said the more he ruminated on it, the worse he felt. He then decided to call a sexual assault hotline and speak with someone about what happened.
"They said it directly to me. They said, 'I'm sorry you were sexually assaulted.' And I broke down," Francois said. "I called my mother and some of my close friends and I said, 'I can't believe that happened to me.'"
Francois said his first instinct was to have a conversation with Dobrik and Nash about how he was feeling "because they were the source of it." But instead of validating his trauma, he said, they offered him money to keep the video online. Francois said he declined the payment and instead followed up with a text, saying, "Everything is going to be OK, I'm going to be alright." Francois told BuzzFeed News he was trying to "be the bigger man" at the time.
But after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he said he felt an "energy change." The video remained online — and in it, Francois saw himself being duped and abused. He said he thought, This is really, really shady.
"At the end of the day, what I really wanted was respect. I'm tired of being in this social media space, being one of the few Black people working in front of the scenes and also behind the scenes," he said. "It's all the times I would have to do something degrading to myself or my race in order to be in the room."
"Allegations are when there's a lack of proof, but in my case it's blatant. The point of the video is to sexually assault me," he said. "That's the whole premise. I told [Dobrik] how I felt about it three years later after [he] monetized it."
Francois believes Dobrik is not remorseful, since the video remains online and he has not heard from the YouTuber since their last conversation about it.
"If [Dobrik and Nash] don't know what's wrong and they don't understand that what they did was wrong, it makes me feel like that could still happen. Or maybe it has happened to other people who are afraid of speaking up," he added.
He hopes speaking publicly about what he went through will help "teach a lesson" about abuse of power and inspire others to ask themselves if they've had similar "wrong" feelings about an incident.
"I don't hate David. He's obviously a pretty good guy. He's buying people cars. Even if it's for PR, he's still doing that," Francois said. "But when we make mistakes, no matter how good we are, we have to make those mistakes right."
For all the good Dobrik may have done, Francois wants him to reflect and atone for the hurt he's also caused.
"What about the people you've emotionally and mentally hurt? Why is it so difficult to go out of your way to at least have a conversation with some of these people and see their side?" he asked.
Francois left the Vlog Squad two years ago, partly because of the video and the harassment he said he faced and partly for new opportunities. He now leads a talent agency and said he wants to ensure his clients work in safe and equitable environments. And he wants his story to inspire others "to be a part of the solution," he said, "which is having these conversations with your friends [and] finding different charities and organizations to donate to to make a change."