Picture: Youtube screenshot
Washington - It is a day in January 2018, which means that a controversial YouTuber is in the news. This time, it's Arya Mosallah, a Britain-based YouTuber who threw water in the faces of strangers.

The thing that made this prank a news story was its context: acid attacks, an alarming crime that tripled in frequency in Britain from 2014 to 2017. In a real acid attack, the attacker will approach a victim and throw liquid in their face. Mosallah didn't say in his video that he was trying to trick people into thinking they were a victim of such an attack. His video doesn't mention them at all. And, yet, his prank was nearly identical. The only difference was that the liquid in his cup was harmless.

Whether Mosallah had this context in mind or not, the video clearly evoked the growing fear of acid attacks. At best, Mosallah was accosting strangers with an annoying prank for clicks. Turn the kaleidoscope and you'll see something else: British courts determined, in another case, that throwing water on someone can be an assault. Earlier this year, someone threw water in the face of two Muslim women standing outside a mosque in an apparent fake acid attack.

For actual victims of these attacks, the similarities between Mosallah's video and their experience was unmistakable.

The cycle of a controversial YouTuber was set in motion. Mosallah became a news story. YouTube removed the video on Monday, originally posted in early January, "for violating YouTube's policy on harassment and bullying," and, Mosallah said, issued a strike - YouTube's warning system for breaking the site's rules -against his channel. Mosallah then posted a defiant response to the controversy in which he accused the media of "slander."

"You're crying over one video that was a joke and was never meant to be for these old boring people," he said, referring to the media outlets that were reaching out to him for interviews.

Mosallah did not return our emailed request for comment.

A YouTube video that goes "too far" rarely exists in isolation. Mosallah is part of an ecosystem of YouTube prank channels that publish a mix of faked and real cruelty that victimises strangers for entertainment and views.

If you've never watched a YouTube prank channel before, his videos might be pretty shocking. But the YouTube prank community has long been a competition for who can capture its audience's attention with the latest extreme, offensive, possibly staged video, justified as "just a prank!" This is the genre that made a name for Roman Atwood - a YouTuber who has pretended to kill his own child for views. It's the genre that inspired the DaddyOFive family to pull disturbing pranks on their own young children.

At the beginning of 2018, Logan Paul brought the ugly side of YouTube's fierce competition for views into the mainstream when he vlogged the body of a suicide victim. In the wake of widespread media coverage, YouTube penalised Paul by revoking his access to premium ad content, canceling his projects with YouTube's subscription service and issuing a strike against his channel.

But the challenge that YouTube faces isn't handling isolated cases that make the news - it's enforcing its own rules consistently. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki recently said the company needed many more experts to "get their feedback over what type of content should we be taking down and how do we redraw our policies to be able to do the right thing." YouTube says it currently relies on a mix of humans and machines to moderate its content. But more than 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

Mosallah's channel, ItzArya, has about 660 000 subscribers - not bad, but nothing special in his genre of YouTube prank videos. Mosallah says he makes his living off the channel through ads and sponsors. A favourite sponsor of his is a service called EduBirdie, a "custom essay writing service" that Mosallah encourages his viewers to use to pay someone else to do their college work for them without getting "caught."

It's not immediately clear from his videos whether Mosallah "stages" his pranks - in other words, whether his victims have actually agreed ahead of time to participate. Some of his victims have their faces blurred, others don't. YouTube's anti-harassment rules prohibit "Maliciously recording someone without their consent" and "Deliberately posting content in order to humiliate someone."

Staged or not, it's also possible that Mosallah was inspired to do his water prank from other YouTubers, and not from acid attacks. A prank channel called RebelTV got a couple million views with a nearly identical water-throwing prank in 2016 - one that channel has repeated, in different permutations, many times. Two weeks ago, Mosallah posted a video in which he ate other people's food. FouseyTube got 16 million views with the same idea in 2013. This is how YouTube prank videos work: Creators imitate the pranks, and keywords, that are successful. And when those no longer generate views, you go more extreme.

Mosallah's not wrong when he says he's "done way more controversial pranks" that were still on his channel, and still monetised with ads. For instance, he said, "I've done a bomb prank back in the day which got no attention." He's actually done two bomb pranks: "SANTA BOMB PRANK" and "DRIVE BY BOMB SCARE PRANK."

In the latter video, someone (presumably Mosallah) wears an Osama bin Laden mask and throws a black backpack at strangers. As they react, some appearing to believe the bag is a real bomb, the video cuts to Benny Hill music. One victim falls off his bike and runs from the bag as Mosallah's hidden cameraman laughs. Both bomb prank videos have more than a million views and 20 000 likes each.

Mosallah has even thrown water in unsuspecting strangers' faces before. He posted a nearly identical video in June, where he promised to do a sequel to the prank if he got 20 000 "likes."

That earlier video had more than 8 million views on Monday afternoon - it remained on Mosallah's channel for hours after the new water prank video was taken down. After several news outlets noted the previous video in their coverage, YouTube also removed it.

The Washington Post