When Anna Scanlon logged onto the video streaming site YouNow last Halloween, her stomach sank. Vegan Cheetah, a popular vlogger within the online vegan community, had uploaded a four-hour video in which he accused Scanlon of flashing him her genitals against his consent and propositioning sex via Skype.
“I felt sick and horrified and humiliated. I even threw up,” said Scanlon, a PhD student at the British University of Leicester who denies the exchange ever happened. She challenged Cheetah, whose real name is Charles Marlowe, to provide proof that they’d Skyped.
Roni Jacobson is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
Sign up to get Backchannel’s weekly newsletter.
A 29-year-old vegan from New York, Marlowe has about 44,000 subscribers on Youtube and roughly 54,000 on YouNow. He’s best known for his series “Dumbest Vegans of YouTube,” which features near-daily rants about edible marijuana, women, good TV, women, and—of course—veganism. In this case, Scanlon said, Marlowe didn’t provide any of the proof she demanded, but rather doubled down on his allegations. “I think we should give this fat bitch, who’s not even vegan”—he paused and sighed as he addressed his call-to-action to the camera—“a campaign to try and scare her off.”
Marlowe then directed his public comments directly to Scanlon, saying, “You are going to get fucking trolled and hated as each day goes by.”
This wasn’t what Scanlon, who is 33, had signed up for when she began vlogging in 2014. A scholar who researches the Holocaust, she’d started a beauty and lifestyle channel on YouTube for fun. After she was diagnosed with lupus and a chronic illness called interstitial cystitis in 2015, she started talking more and more about veganism as a way to cope with newfound dietary restrictions. Scanlon was accepted quickly into the vegan vlogging (short for video blogging) community, a tight-knit group occupying its own little chunk of the internet. For awhile, vlogging was awesome—an affirming way to feel connected to other people struggling with illness and to share what she was learning about life without dairy.
Scanlon’s beef with Marlowe started back in September 2016. She’d been watching his shows for a while, and at first appreciated the way he called out other vloggers for spreading harmful pseudoscience around veganism and promoting overly restrictive diets as medicinal cures — a real problem within the community. She said things took a turn when he started making personal attacks, saying that one vlogger had AIDS and herpes and encouraging his followers to make fun of her. Scanlon posted a comment on a Facebook group criticizing this change. That’s when Marlowe set his sights on her, first posting about their alleged encounter on Tumblr and then staging his Halloween attack.
At first, Scanlon ignored the hate. She blocked Marlowe on YouNow and didn’t watch his videos about her. She also refused to read the sexist and antisemitic hate pouring forth about her in the comments section next to the stream, where commenters called her a “hideous jew” and said that they wished her family had “burned in the ovens.” But Marlowe’s followers nonetheless swarmed the comments section of her own profile. “Anytime I would make a video or go online, there would be comments saying I had masturbated on Skype, that I’m a liar and a slut and all these things,” Scanlon said. The trolls threatened to call her school and her family; they said they would tell her boyfriend that she was cheating on him. A smaller group of truly dedicated trolls—Scanlon estimated that there were about 10 of them—took it further, posting their own videos about her and actually contacting her family.
Scanlon said she reported Marlowe to YouTube and YouNow. By then, she’d stopped using the sites altogether. YouTube deleted some of Marlowe’s videos and removed the ads from others, after determining the content wasn’t “advertiser-friendly.” (It also briefly suspended Marlow’s account for unrelated violations.) But YouNow did nothing, according to Scanlon (YouNow declined to comment on individual users; Marlowe confirmed that at the time, he had never been suspended or had a video taken down). After a short exchange of emails, a representative emailed Scanlon asking her to provide timestamps, noting the links she’d submitted were several hours long. She sent the timestamps but said she never heard back. The only response she received was a survey asking her to rate her experience.
Sometime last winter, Scanlon said she Googled herself and saw that a top result read: “Anna Scanlon accused of offering sex.” She worried that it would affect her career as an educator and her ability to work with students. She’d had enough. She sued Marlowe for defamation.
Marlowe revels in being a bully. He has waged similar campaigns against others, occasionally to the point where they have abandoned social media. “We finally ran the fuckin’ bitch out of YouNow after I exposed this whole fucking Facebook group,” he said about a user known as Vegan Lass in a video last September, referring to the Facebook group in which Anna also originally voiced her concern over his videos. (Vegan Lass declined to comment.)
Another young vlogger who makes her income as a digital influencer said she took a break from YouNow in part because of Vegan Cheetah and his followers. “Back then I was really scared to put out content,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid further targeting. She said she felt very depressed after Marlowe made a video commenting on her body when she was “battling with eating disorder recovery.” She also said she believes that Marlowe’s videos have affected her income, as she lost followers and “the fear of making content didn’t allow me to continue with my job as usual.”
The challenge was that the more Marlowe ignited controversy, the more profitable his own following became—both for him and for the social networks on which he posts. Marlowe, whose Twitter bio reads “I love #vegan drama and being #vamous,” is one of many vloggers who have adopted the strategy of amping up the drama for views. Mr. and Mrs. Vegan, an immensely popular vlogging couple that Marlowe has also targeted, summed up the scene as they saw it in an email: “Harass for cash, the new economy of hate.”
Many members of the online vegan community regularly accuse others of being “fake” and “not a real vegan,” engaging in call-out videos and manufactured feuds. But most stop short of the particularly vicious trolling tactics that Marlowe and others on the platform employ. Most also don’t command the same amount of followers or clout.
YouNow rewarded Marlowe for his engaged following. Marlowe was part of of the company’s “Partner Program,” which provides popular broadcasters with the opportunity to make money off their streams, primarily through subscriptions to their channel and a tip jar through which their fans can send money directly. YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms also allow users to profit from their posts, mostly through ad revenue and sponsored content, but it is much harder to achieve the level of viral fame needed to make a living on those platforms. YouNow allows its partners to keep many more of the ad dollars they attract, and it cuts them a check at the end of every month. YouNow CEO Adi Sideman told TechCrunch that some performers earn in the low five figures per month, and said that “talented” members have been contacted by Hollywood agencies, managers, and record labels.” (Marlowe said he makes roughly $35,000 in total as an influencer across several social platforms.)
Social media platforms notoriously struggle with identifying and sanctioning harassment, and knowing when to block a user for what crosses a line. ProPublica recently exposed how Facebook’s algorithm for censoring harassment favors existing power structures. After an outcry from advertisers last August, YouTube started preventing content creators from making money off of videos that violate their standards. YouNow’s business model, combined with what appears to be particularly lax enforcement, appears to have put the phenomenon on overdrive—a problem that extends far beyond the vegan vlogging community. Myriad niche communities on YouNow have similar dynamics, Marlowe said.
Clearly there’s a business incentive to turn a blind eye to the hate. Controversy makes for content.
Marlowe, who has bleached blonde hair, can often be seen on his livestream smoking out of his vape. He can be charming and tends to come across as reasonable. “I want to promote a message that is inclusive and invite people into the convo, whether vegan or not vegan,” he said in one video where he talked about feeling shamed into only eating fruit by “peer pressure from vegans on the internet.”
But Marlowe also uses sexist, racist, homophobic, and body-shaming language, sometimes in the next breath. He complains about “social justice warriors (SJWs) within veganism” who are “only going to divide veganism further from the mainstream.” In one video he calls another vlogger “nothing but an old crone an old dried-up hag,” identifying the vlogger as a social justice warrior and part of the “vegan social media elite.” He crows at the camera, “Ever since I came onto the scene…her opinions have become more and more irrelevant,” adding: “Suck my big fat vegan white cock.”
When I called Marlowe, he was candid with me. He described his channel to me as “TMZ” for the vegan community. “Think of it like a television show,” he said. “I use these people to create characters and storylines.” Sometimes the stories are based in fact and sometimes they’re “speculative,” he told me. One of his series is called “The Sunday Slander.” In addition to “drama” videos in which Marlowe runs down the latest gossip, he has also been making more “personalized videos,” focusing on particular individuals within the community—“because people seem to like that,” he said.
I reminded Marlowe that the “characters” were real people, and that many of them claim to have suffered because of his deeds. He brushed it off, and suggested that they were exaggerating. “I don’t think her professional reputation has been harmed at all,” he said about Scanlon, whose lawsuit he called a “politically motivated” attack on free speech by a “social justice warrior.” Marlowe denied that he had defamed anyone.
I asked about the other people alleging he had bullied them off YouNow and complaining about racist and homophobic content on his channel. “I understand what I do is extremely controversial,” Marlowe responded. But ultimately, he said he thinks it is “harmless,” and the videos are “entertainment not to be taken seriously.” He also thinks that trash talk is part of the community, and if people get offended, he said, “don’t watch.”
But what about the trolls, I asked? Even if people “don’t watch,” trolls allegedly commanded by him still find them. “I could see how some would think they were led by me,” he said. But, he added, “I can’t take responsibility for everybody’s actions.”
Marlowe sees his vlogging as a business. “You have to understand it’s just content. I’m the producer, the director, and sometimes the star all in one,” he said. “That’s what social media has offered people like me—a platform and a voice also and a way to break into an audience.”
He gets passionate when speaking about his vlogging career. “What I do has offered me the life I can only dream of at age 29,” he said. “The content I produce has offered so much to me. I’ve been invited to speaking engagements at various conventions to talk about my channel’s format. I’m financially independent.”
To Scanlon’s claims that he is “making money by bullying her, he replied: “If I was breaking the terms of service or doing something illegal, don’t you think [YouNow] would have done something?”
Unless you happen to be a North American adolescent deeply steeped in internet culture, you might not have heard of YouNow until now. It was founded in 2011, but didn’t take off until around 2015, a year after it launched its “Partner Program.” The “exclusive” program, as it is described on YouNow’s website, is reserved only for consistently popular vloggers who agree to produce a certain amount of content per week. In return, they get opportunities to earn money through vlogging in ways not available to non-partners. These include subscriptions their fans can purchase at $4.99/month, an online tip jar through which fans can send cash directly, and gifts, among other things. The promise of fortune as well as online fame is a big lure of YouNow. “Go Live. Hang with Friends. Monetize,” the website copy beckons. YouNow splits the proceeds 60/40 in favor of the content creator, a far more generous arrangement than most larger platforms. The site now boasts upwards of 40 million users, according to recent numbers provided by YouNow, and is especially popular among teens and young adults: 75 percent of its user base is between 13 and 24 years old.
According to several people interviewed for this article, as well as the company’s Twitter feed, YouNow has a serious problem with bullying and harassment. “I’ve been on YouNow for two years. Personally I’ve reported hundreds of users but hardly any get banned,” said one non-vegan user who complained about the amount of sexual harassment on the site. “I’ve seen a big broadcaster boasting that they will never be banned as they bring in viewers and YouNow wants people to spend money,” that person wrote.
“Recently there has been this trend amongst popular YouNow accounts to go into less popular YouNow streams and spam them out and get their fans to do the same,” confirmed a third user via Twitter who was only “vaguely-aware” of the vegan drama. “No matter how often you report [the Partnered users], their accounts aren’t ever looked at.” YouNow denied that it gives preferential treatment to partners.
YouNow’s rules prohibit “bullying, harassment, or hate speech,” according to its website. “We do not permit attacks on others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition,” it continues. “Our moderation team is hard at work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, banning users who violate our Terms and/or Site Rules.” In an interview, YouNow CEO Sideman reinforced this, saying: “We have zero tolerance to bad behavior and we have zero intention to promote it period.” He added, “it is unfortunate that certain users want to call attention to themselves,” and noted that there is a “fine balance” between free speech and artistic expression, and abuse and inappropriate behavior. “And we try every day to walk that line like any social media platform,” he said. “We can always do better.”
As of August 21, Marlowe said he had never been suspended or had a video removed by YouNow, which declined to comment on his profile specifically. In general, regarding suspensions versus banning, YouNow has a “zero tolerance policy on nudity and threats of violence,” Reeves said, adding: “Each situation is handled with the understanding of context and the users who are involved in the case.”
But at least one of Marlowe’s subjects said that YouNow hasn’t evaluated that context correctly. Vegan chef Leonard Smiley, who said he had also been victim of Marlowe’s harassment, has reported many of his videos to YouNow. “I take that shit seriously,” Smiley said, but “nothing ever gets done.”
At one point, Smiley said, Marlowe threatened to get him banned for reporting videos. On that same day, Smiley remembered, he bragged “that he has big-time connections at YouNow.”
Marlowe acknowledged the video and said he was referring to his YouNow manager. All partners are assigned managers to help boost and optimize their social media presence, he told me. He is in contact with his on a weekly basis via email. A few days after our interview, Marlowe livestreamed himself talking about the harassment claims against him with his manager on speakerphone. He mentioned that his videos have been getting a lot of heat lately, as his manager “might be aware.”
In the video, the manager can be heard replying: “Thanks for reaching out about this. I actually haven’t heard much about this, which is a good sign. Our trust and safety team will contact you directly if anything ever breaks our terms and guidelines.”
When I asked him about the exchange, Sideman said that he wasn’t surprised that Marlowe’s manager wasn’t aware of any recent harassment allegations, because that’s the role of the trust and safety department—not the manager. “We have a Chinese wall between those things and those are trust and safety decisions not partner manager decisions. I think that’s critical,” he said. “It is critical that every user behavior that is brought to our attention is assessed independently and blindly of any other status.”
Six months after Scanlon filed suit against Marlowe, the vlogger showed up at a Santa Monica courthouse for a preliminary hearing. Scanlon said she didn’t attend because it was too far to travel from her UK home. Marlowe tweeted and snapped photos from the institutional brown chairs of the courtroom. In one selfie, his eyes were closed, his right hand clapped across his mouth. The caption read: “I should have just Skype fucked the bitch.”
Scanlon is seeking monetary damages upwards of $25,000. Her lawyer, Bruce Jacques, said that Marlowe’s attack on Scanlon’s reputation “damages her in her trade and occupation as a student and former professor.”
But her chances of winning are slim, according to University of Southern California law professor Michael Overing. He told Buzzfeed, “Defamation cases, they’re really, really, really difficult to prove.” The challenge, according to Overing, is that the plaintiff—Scanlon—has to prove the defendant’s statements are false and that there has been damage to her reputation. It can quickly devolve into a she-said-he-said situation.
And while it might be hard to hold Marlowe accountable for defamation, it’s nearly impossible to lay blame on YouNow. Scanlon did not even try to sue the site. “The CDA generally immunizes websites from defamation complaints unless owners or managers were complicit in composition of content,” Jaques said, referring to the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which holds that platforms aren’t responsible for the speech they host.
“Many people suing for harassment have tried to find exemptions under the CDA,” said Daphne Keller, director of intermediary liability at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society, making the point that the platforms usually win.
Scanlon is still not back on YouNow. She posts to Instagram these days, and tweets. A pinned Tweet dated August 7 features a link to a GoFundMe account set up to help pay her legal fees, entitled: “There’s good money to be made bullying people online.”
Meanwhile, hours before this story went to press, Marlowe’s account disappeared. “I’ve been banned from YouNow. Video is coming soon,” Marlowe tweeted. “I’ll explain everything I know in the video. Stay tuned.”