Have you heard of Arya Mosallah? No? Me neither. Well, at least not until today, when I discovered a news story which brought him to my attention for the first time. For those of you who do not know, Ayra Mosallah is a 22-year-old YouTuber who has made a name for himself by recording and uploading “prank” videos to his channel which currently has over half a million subscribers.
One such “prank” video, which is the focus of the aforementioned news story, has resulted in Mosallah facing widespread criticism in the British media and has re-opened a debate regarding the social responsibility of YouTubers in relation to the content they choose to upload to their channels. This comes just weeks after one of YouTube’s most successful vloggers, Logan Paul – whose channel has over 15 million subscribers – was subjected to intense public scrutiny after he uploaded a video which showed the body of an individual who had committed suicide in the Aokigahara forest in Japan.
Mosallah’s video, which has now been removed, shows him “pranking” members of the public by approaching them with a cup of water. Once he has gained their attention, Mosallah then proceeds to throw the water into their faces. The individuals, who are often completely unaware of what is to come, are clearly shocked by his actions and are left in a state of confusion as Mosallah runs away from them. Pranks of this kind seem to be reminiscent of the “happy slapping” craze which gave cause for concern in the early 2000s, whereby groups of teenagers would record themselves slapping an unsuspecting peer or passer-by and then proceed to share the videos using their mobile phones.
Although Mosallah himself insists that his “prank” was “meant to be funny” the video has received a largely negative response, given the fact that it can be seen to resemble the style of “acid attacks” which are becoming increasingly common on the streets of Britain.
To provide some context, in 2016, 454 acid attacks were reported to the Metropolitan Police, an increase of 173% from the previous year. Occurring predominantly in London, the attacks, which often involve an individual throwing or spraying sulphuric acid or other corrosive substances into the faces of their victims, can have potentially devastating consequences, often causing life changes injuries and in the most severe of cases, can even result in death. Given this alarming increase in the frequency of these incidents, acid attacks are currently at the forefront of public consciousness and there is a heightened level of sensitivity in regards to the way in which attacks of this nature are carried out.
With this in mind, this “prank” video poses two important questions. First, was Mosallah in the wrong for uploading a video of himself throwing water into strangers faces and second, did YouTube do the right thing by removing the video? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is undoubtedly, yes.
Having watched a similar video on Mosallah’s YouTube channel, I did not find it funny, or even remotely entertaining. I did not see it as a “prank” – instead, I saw innocent members of the public being subjected to behaviour which most respectable members of society would quite simply be outraged by. Even if the intention behind the video was to be funny or to entertain, to me, it simply demonstrated a blatant lack of awareness – on Mosallah’s behalf – of the seriousness and prevalence of acid attacks in this country. As a YouTuber with a significant, presumably younger following, Mosallah, like so many other vloggers, should ensure that his videos are socially and morally responsible and that they acknowledge the wider context in which they are published and subsequently viewed by the public.
The issues raised by this case, highlight some of the wider changes that have occurred in the contemporary media landscape and the subsequent impact that this has had on crime and justice in particular. Social media, as a platform, has enabled the widespread creation and distribution of content and has blurred the boundaries between the traditional concepts of the producer and the consumer. According to Yar (2012:248) this “multi-directional social media dynamic” has led to a change in the way criminality is used for self-promotion. Yar (2012) suggests crime involvement and self-promotion are intertwined and social media’s encouragement of people to validate themselves has led to an increase in the number of incriminating crime videos being voluntarily posted online.
Although there is some debate as to whether Mosallah’s actions in the video constitute criminal behaviour, the “prank” video could indeed be viewed as what Surette (2015) refers to as a “performance crime” which involves the recording, sharing and uploading of crime in order to distribute the performance to new media audiences” (Yar, 2012:246). Performance crimes have a commodity value and offer a potential career boost for the individual responsible for uploading them, as more views can lead to an increase in popularity and subsequently, an increase in revenue.
Worryingly, Surette (2015:200) suggests “the social need to share that drives performance crime enhances the sense that criminal acts are socially acceptable because their social media has a waiting audience.” It is therefore easy to see how “prank” videos of this kind could have a potentially detrimental impact on the public perception of more serious incidents such as acid attacks.
To conclude, whether intentionally or not, “prank” videos of this nature, serve to detract from the seriousness of crimes such as acid attacks and the physical and psychological impact they have upon those who fall victim to them. Surely, YouTubers should endeavour to raise awareness of important social issues, rather than simply trivialising them in the pursuit of more views and subscribers.