The Ethics of a Platform

Being a content creator and amassing an audience means guiding that audience with responsibility.

You’re Jim Jones Now, Babes

When you amass a certain number of followers on social media, you inherently have the captive eyes of thousands at any moment—if you are lucky enough, millions. When you get down to it, you are a bit of a Cult Leader.

You have the power to show them something they have never seen, make them laugh at a funny joke, inform them of a topic, or use them to inflate your ego when a troll bates you into responding. One way or another, you have incredible power of influence over these people now. It can be empowering to hold a captive audience of like-minded individuals—keeping your followers fans at your beck and call for any and all that you conjure into the world. Every YouTube video, Newsletter, TikTok, Instagram Reel, Threads, and Twitter post will draw their attention. Some even become parasocial, a word used to describe some of the most devout dedicated fans. They are so invested in you that they think of you as a friend, not just an internet personality. These people are as invested in you as someone close to them in their private lives. They will be your most ardent lambs supporters. You control the narrative, you drive the conversation, and if you say something is true, then a majority of them will take that as fact.

What you can’t always control is their actions. That audience can and will do things of their own volition; they are still capable of free will, after all. You will not always be able to anticipate how that audience will take that post you made and turn it into a campaign. Maybe your dedicated disciples fans form a mob and storm the proverbial gates of the internet to “cancel” an adversary. Perhaps they take particular insult to someone else’s criticism of your content and take it upon themselves personally to threaten and harass that person. Worse, they could even send death threats to someone you highlighted. You didn’t directly do it, sure, but your flock fans did.

sound familiar?

They represent you, and any actions they take are a reflection of you and the community you cultivate. When you have a platform of considerable size, every action has a reactive consideration you now have to take into account. You are no longer just shitposting into the void, the internet has eyes and ears, and it’s listening. When a disgruntled audience member decides to hurl insults at you, you now have to levy the amount of proportional attention you are about to hurl back. Sure, they decided to engage in a public tiff against someone with the capacity to send millions of people to their doorstep. So, any consequence of that action is a little bit their own responsibility. But did you really want more than a thousand people shouting at once at this person? Did you want someone to consider going into hiding or, worse, ending their own life because they made a mistake that cost them their privacy? I bet you would like to think you have an audience with better instincts than to do something like that, but you can’t always predict the reaction of someone parasocially invested in you. They think they are doing what’s best for you, sort of like the followers of a Cult.

You Are Responsible For Your Community

“But why does that mean I have to be more careful? Why aren’t they to blame for their own actions? I am just posting—I didn’t tell anyone to do anything!”
Well, to quote Ben Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” You have to acknowledge that you, in fact, still played a part. You provided the opportunity for the event to happen; blame doesn’t lie solely with you—it will always be the majority of the perpetrator—but you still opened the door. It’s not easy; you will get it wrong, someone will go way outside the lines of acceptable behavior, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

So what can you do? Well, for starters, you can go out of your way to ensure that your audience knows that you condemn any such destructive actions. You can make a broad statement addressing how that conduct is not representative of you, your views, or what you want from a community. Shut them down and gate them from the commune, so to speak. Take ownership and moderate where you have control. If you think that might be too much work, look for ways to engage your community in a natural way that would encourage helpful and respectful boundaries.

If your community is large enough and you can afford it, perhaps anoint some of your most loyal and like-minded to help shepherd the flock by becoming community moderators. Sure, most use volunteers for this, but personally, I think the idea that you would expect someone to weed out the dredges of humanity from your personal Garden of Eden is a little much to ask for free. It’s a lot of work, and it is certainly thankless. Pay your people for their time, is all I am saying.

Okay, but what if you cultivated a toxic community through the actions of your younger, more naive self? Used to be an edgy content creator and amassed a legion of terrible young men who repeat some of the most heinous things you have ever heard?

Perhaps you yourself used to say those heinous, hateful things—But now you have grown and distanced yourself from those days, and your audience hasn’t been as quick to move on. Well, you're going to have to address them outright. It won’t be easy, and you're going to have to eat quite a lot of crow. You directly enabled those people to fester with those ideals by perpetuating them and validating those thoughts. You provided the excuse to continue to say a slur or harass women in public. Now, you have to untangle that and directly address the nation of ignorance you have wrought.

idubbbz - Owning Your Impact

Ian “idubbbz” Jomha was once one such ignorant soothsayer of young, angry boys. His content was considered on the fringe of what was “politically correct.” At the height of his “edgy” era, he had amassed over 4 Million subscribers on YouTube. He would often use slurs and even became a viral meme on more than one occasion for stunts he pulled in public or with his collaboration with other “edgy” content creators. At one point, going up to another YouTuber who had been under controversy for her use of the N-word and accosted her during a fan event; he yelled, “Say N—” while trying to take a selfie. She was understandably distressed by the issue, calling him out on Twitter for the action. He doubled down and began digging up instances where she had said the slur throughout history.

He eventually chilled the fuck out, so to speak. It took him a little while, but he eventually addressed his fanbase head-on. Back on Mar 10, 2023, during an interview with Anthony Padilla, Ian disclosed that he had become disaffected with his fanbase after an in-person interaction showed him the type of behavior he was endorsing with his content. Antisocial fans who would greet him in public and say some of the slurs he had used in his videos. It was offputting to him and made him realize what he had wrought.

He followed this up with a video of his own titled “I miss the old idubbbz,” referencing a common sentiment among his legacy fans who had become alienated by his shift in content style and general attitude towards social issues.

The important context is that he did this largely unprompted; no one had widely been calling for his “cancellation.” This was a result of his increasing displeasure with the discourse happening on his behalf by former fans. Those same individuals were using his wife, Anisa Jomha, as the reason for his change. Dragging his wife through the mud to try and paint her as the reason for his softened edge and more “woke” demeanor. The simple reality is that Ian grew up and couldn’t shake the harm he’d done. So he used his platform to address his community and succinctly tell them he no longer supports those views; he was specifically distancing himself from the very content he would have criticized now through his new frame of empathy and consideration.

He had no incentive to do this; he was still making money off of his older videos, and despite his disgruntled fanbase, they still turned out for most of his content. So, by making this direct addressment, he risked losing a substantial amount of both his income and his following. An argument could be made that, eventually, the issue would have been forced externally, and perhaps getting in front of it allowed him to control the narrative. Regardless, he took the ownership. He took responsibility for his platform.

South Park - Addressing Without Saying

Another example of this “growing pain” behavior is the show South Park. It's a show that’s been on TV almost as long as The Simpsons. It has been marred over the decades by its numerous controversies, from tokenization, antisemitism, homophobia, climate denialism, and overall bigoted behavior. Often using the excuse that the show is a parody as a shield. This can be effective to a certain degree. But you have to ensure your audience is in on the joke first. What happens when they aren’t? Well, they just think you are being sincere.

There are legions of South Park fans who thought the joke was on the targets of the bigoted topics, not them, the bigots laughing along. When the show creators Matt and Trey had children of their own, and they began to grow up in this cultural landscape, they had helped shape over the years; it likely became apparent to them that the shitty things they used animated children to say were now being said by children at their own children. Over time, the show started to pivot to being more aggressively in your face about the topic they were parodying. Recently, using the show’s “one black character,” formerly “Token” and dedicated an entire episode to saying his name was always “Tolken” and that the boys were just shitty and never learned his real name. The showrunners started changing the name everywhere they could, renaming the character in an effort to playfully “gaslight” the fans into making them out to be the racists. This is a fun sentiment, but the issue still stands that instead of addressing the fandom they helped validate with bigoted ideology, they just push through it to try and re-establish a new reality. While not nearly as bad as being any of the minorities targeted in the show's parody, I still grew up with Red Hair, A “ginger,” if you will. The show had a recurring bit of making fun of gingers, which, of course, carried over into real-world bullying.

not to mention, red hair is somewhat common among Ashkenazi Jews, so the added antisemitism of it was gross

It eventually turned the joke in on itself by making the main antagonist experience firsthand the thinly veiled allegory for racism/antisemitism. Personally, the bullying was never as bad as it could have been, and I am not overly sensitive to it, but it did happen. Specifically, it happened because of the show, and I know that since the quotes on the show were what got flung at me.

The show has recently tried toeing the line of being more socially conscious while still retaining its parody edge. Personally, I have been more of a fan of the recent content than I ever have. Pushing themselves to maintain a healthy balance has allowed them to become more creative in their narratives, and I enjoy seeing how they portray a major cultural event through the lens of the show. But they still have my ire for the generations of young men they raised to hatefully repeat antisemitic remarks, perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and provide a validating medium for the ignorant to flourish. Addressing them head-on rather than through tongue-in-cheek parody would go a long way in assuring the audience they are actually remorseful for it. You may disagree and imply that an artist shouldn’t apologize for work in the past, but I think it shows greater growth of character. You can disown how you approached a topic without insulting your own artistry. Many artists look at their former work and say they would have done it differently today; it’s a sign of improvement.

When It’s Not That Easy

Of course, there is the other side of this coin. When you don’t cultivate a toxic fanbase, they will cultivate themselves despite your objections. We’re spending a lot of time and words talking about the responsibility of the creator, but the fans are not without agency. You are still responsible for yourself, after all.

It is incredibly alluring to fall into the parasocial trap and invest your personal time and energy into the goings-on of a virtual celebrity. You participate in the community. You join a discord server dedicated to that creator, and find yourself surrounded by other fans, all ravenously obsessed with the same person. You wait eagerly for the next drop of content to drip out from the spout.

Perhaps your favorite hyperfocus has a new critic, and you disagree with everything they said. So you not only criticize the critic, but you take it upon yourself to silence the dissent and squash any opposition to the narrative you would like to uphold. Some subset of Taylor Swift fans, “swifties” as they are known, can often fall into this trapping. Not all of them, of course, but a large enough community of them to cause trouble. Harassing any music critics who don’t like the newest album or dismissing the conversations about Taylor’s economic impact with her fleet of jets crisscrossing the US between tours. This is just one example; you can find a multitude of hungry fans ready to operate independently from the creator but in their name. Taylor has never addressed this behavior to an alarming degree. Her fans continue to make the news for their destructive behavior, trying to protect her image. She has yet, to my knowledge, made a public comment dissuading this behavior or addressing it in any significant fashion. I won’t continue to dive too deep into this here, earnestly, because of the same fear of potential backlash. So, instead, I will leave you with this Newsweek article on the topic:

Responsibility Of Having a Platform

Let's step away from discussing creators and fans and their responsibility to each other for a moment and instead discuss the responsibility of having a platform in the first place.

If you have a voice heard by many, is it not ethically your responsibility to use that voice on behalf of the few?

When you have the attention of millions of eyes, criticism often gets levied that the creator is not doing enough to highlight a social or political issue. This is a valid concern from the audience. If you are a creator often addressing injustices, why would you not use this same platform to highlight, for example, a genocide occurring, like the one happening today in Palestine?

Is it “your place” to discuss something outside of the content niche you create? The answer is always going to come down to ethics. Remove the pressure of the audience for a moment and consider both the impact of the situation and what value you personally bring by elevating the awareness of it. Ask yourself why you aren’t using your platform to talk about an important topic or issue. Maybe you aren’t confident about all of the nuances; perhaps find another creator or an organization that is and highlight them instead. If your only reason is that you don’t think your fans would like it, perhaps that’s a question of the type of community you are curating. It's not inherently a bad thing, but ask if this is the community you want. The right answer is never going to be clear, but if you choose not to use your platform, what will you use it for? What value is it bringing to others and your community? Not everything created has to have value, but it would be a waste not to consider the use of it to provide elevated attention if you had the opportunity.

I’m not asking these questions to shame you or dissuade you from discussing controversial topics. Instead, I truly just want you to consider the impact you could have and levy your own personal morals to say this inaction is what you are comfortable with for you and your audience. You may not think your impact will make a difference, but consider the opportunity you are giving up without trying.

Closing Out

This whole post is going to sound like hating from outside of the club, and it is. However, we needed to have an earnest talk about being an ethical content creator. Far too often, you will see small and large creators prop up someone with no followers and no real presence online to “roast” them for their hateful comments. While I don’t think there's an inherent issue with that approach, it still requires an ethical check-in with yourself about whether or not you want to bring that many eyes to this person. Trust me, I do it all the time on Threads. It’s about whether you want to potentially have this person bombarded because they operated under the assumption of anonymity. There is no right answer—it’s just a matter of personal morality and the comfortability of your own actions. This could be a situation truly deserving, but it could also be the one time you highlight someone and someone dangerous takes action. You have to be ready for that potential situation and be prepared to accept partial responsibility for it.

Is that content you made something you want to look back on with pride in 5-10 years? Do you feel comfortable with how the audience will interpret it? Do you have peace of mind that what you are providing to the world is what you would want to be remembered for? To the same effect, as an audience member, fan, cult member, etc., are you ready to be the person you were when you made that post? Will you regret not elevating that social issue when you could have made an impact?

Join the conversation

or to participate.