Behind the YouTube pranksters exploiting bizarre kids’ channels
YouTube is home to a lot of deeply weird content and strange trends, from unboxing videos to ASMR channels to sterile performance art to NSFW vulgarity. The last one is something YouTube has tried to address — they now offer an app called “YouTube Kids” that is supposed to give children access to age-appropriate videos while blocking others. Even so, many videos and channels ostensibly aimed at children are troubling and bizarre for adults to watch. In one genre of videos, realistic baby dolls get changed and fed and bathed, and it’s all very fascinating for a two-year-old, who sees the dolls, and horrifying to a thirty-two-year-old who sees the grown woman’s hand manipulating them. Another genre consists of adults cosplaying well-known franchise characters. The most popular channel in this genre is Webs & Tiaras — Toy Monster Compilations, a series that imagines various fanfic scenarios mainly between Spiderman and Elsa from Frozen, with cameos from the Joker and Elsa’s sister Anna.
The view counts on the Webs & Tiaras channel are comparable in number to Casey Neistat vlogs or Ed Sheeran music videos — some on the order of 100 million views, racked up in a single month. The channel, which is only a year and a half old, has over 5 million subscribers, and the videos can get over a million views in just one day. The characters act out simple but nonsensically nightmarish storylines accompanied by repetitive music and no dialogue. Titles include: “Frozen Elsa gets CHICKEN FEET!”, “Frozen Elsa gets BRAIN BELLY!”, “Frozen Elsa & Anna TEAR SPIDERMAN APART!”, “EVIL SANTA KIDNAPS Frozen Elsa & Spiderman!”, and “Frozen Elsa FLUSHES Spiderman in Toilet!”, among others. The storylines are pretty twisted for children’s content: some videos involve Elsa giving birth, and in some others, Spiderman injects Elsa with a brightly colored liquid. You half expect the scenarios to be porn setups.
Despite the apparent virality of the videos, the other metrics used to measure popularity don’t add up with the high view counts. The like and dislike options (thumbs-up and thumbs-down) are usually disabled on the videos, meaning you can’t see how many users are actually engaging with them. There are very few comments (usually several hundred for a video with millions of views), most of which are either keymash nonsense or blather from similar channels hoping, perhaps, to get clicks and views themselves. You get the feeling something is off. The Guardian took notice of the channel last summer, but made little sense of it.
Ethan and Hila Klein, the husband-and-wife Israeli-American YouTubers and meme critics known for their MST3K-style reaction videos under the name h3h3Productions, have weighed in on the phenomenon — mainly how improbable it is. Their main hypothesis is that Webs & Tiaras’ views are coming from bots, making the videos look more popular by jacking up the view counts, and making the channel more money through ad revenue. They also believe, though, that some young children are probably mindlessly viewing the videos on repeat on their parents’ iPads (which could explain the gibberish comments, at least). When Zachzy Games, another YouTuber, expressed skepticism over Webs & Tiaras’ metrics, the owners of the channel emailed him denying the use of bots to increase their view counts and popularity. (I sent an email to a Frozen-themed address for Webs & Tiaras with a request for comment but have not heard back).
In their digging, Ethan and Hila Klein came across several related channels — ToyFamily, Superhero House, and Spiderman Frozen Elsa Superhero Real Life HD, to name a few — which appeared to be piggybacking off the popularity of Webs & Tiaras with lookalike videos that just happen to veer into the sexually explicit. The video thumbnails on the ToyFamily channel (perhaps a play on ToyMonster?) feature the same bright colors and costumed characters, but Elsa is in her underwear, splayed across Mickey Mouse’s lap or with the Hulk’s head between her thighs. A man in Vietnam was recently fined for uploading sexually suggestive videos of Elsa and Spiderman onto YouTube. Despite their obviously explicit content (or obvious to adults, at least), these videos are still seeded to appeal to children and pop up as “suggested” videos under related material. The titillation factor of the bait-and-switch reeks of the YouTube prank video phenomenon.
According to Ethan Hila’s extensive zoom-and-enhance-style research, a pair of brothers known as the Bradberries appear to be behind the ToyFamily channel (though they won’t admit to it). The brothers, who go by Moe and E.T., are Mohammed and Etayyim Etayyim, 23 and 21, known throughout YouTube for their shocking “prank” and “social experiment” videos in which they do odd or unexpected things to see how people will react. They have sat on top of people on the subway, walked into a fast food restaurant and pretended to be the manager’s son, and dressed a child up as homeless just to see what would happen. While these videos are annoying and pointless, some of their prank videos are simply exploitative — the brothers have been criticized for what they refer to as “hood pranks,” which are videos in which they pick fights with people outside of housing projects in New York City.
Recently, Moe and E.T. and their friends Denniscee and Coby Persin seem to have abandoned their “prank” channels in order to pursue the creation of their own Elsa and Spiderman videos. These explicit variations are intended to siphon off traffic from channels like Webs & Tiaras, which Ethan Klein called “the new gold rush” in a video titled, “Toy Channels Are Ruining Society.” In this sloppily edited ToyFamily video, you can hear Denniscee directing the brothers as they act out scenes at the Bradberries’ house. They’re not trying very hard, but it doesn’t matter—the videos still get watched.
The meme has been “busted,” but the Bradberries (and whoever else is in on the racket) have already cashed in. Six months after first discovering the pranksters drafting off Webs & Tiaras traffic, Ethan and Hila found that one channel had racked up 80 million views in one month — far more than any of their previous pranks. In one of their videos, Spiderman drives an Audi and parks next to a gold BMW. It’s enough to make anyone think of selling out, but you get the sense they’re not just doing it for the money. They’re trolls at heart, and who’s easier to exploit than children? Don’t leave your kids alone with Elsa and Spiderman.
Rachel Deal is an intern at the Awl and a student at Columbia University.