The Download: Internet fame often comes with hate and harassment
Fewer than two weeks after posting the video that would make him famous, and less than one week after appearing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Josh Holz experienced the latest milestone in the viral-fame cycle: The 15-year-old was hacked on Twitter.
His account, @joshholzz — the original site of the “Damn Daniel” meme — began tweeting out racist memes Feb. 27. At some point after that, screenshots show, someone changed the account’s header to read “Meme Team” and the listed name to “XTM.” At some point, the hackers also deleted the original “Damn Daniel” video, a sin about which they apparently feel no regret.
“The ‘Damn Daniel’ thing was utterly stupid,” one of the self-proclaimed hackers told the Washington Post by direct message. “It was only a kid saying two words again and again.”
This is the current cost of Internet fame, a capricious beast that gifts surfboards and suffering to its (intermittently) willing subjects. In addition to the hacking, Josh was “swatted” last week, a prank in which a fake police tip gets a SWAT team sent to your house. He and his 14-year-old meme-mate, Daniel Lara, have been the subjects of steady Internet nastiness, including homophobic Twitter jokes and mild threats.
The original video clip was a 30-second compilation of Daniel strutting around school, with Josh complimenting his friend by repeatedly saying “Damn Daniel!” He occasionally punctuated the catchphrase with: “Back at it again with the white Vans.”
Alex from Target or Keyboard Cat or the “prancercise lady” could have warned them: Sometimes being one of the Internet’s most beloved people is almost as bad as ranking among its most hated.
“If you’re going to be out there, part of the deal is that you’re going to get a lot of hate,” said Ben Lashes, the business manager of memetic phenoms including Scumbag Steve and Grumpy Cat. “If you’re in the entertainment business, you sign up for it. But if you put something up on YouTube and it explodes overnight, often you don’t realize there will be a backlash.”
You may also not realize that, over time, the blowback has gotten worse. When Lashes began representing online celebrities in 2011, the worst you might expect was schoolyard-level bullying: name-calling, nasty emails, weird conversations with strangers at bars — generally, Lashes says, the online equivalent of “throwing eggs at the popular kid’s house.”
But in the last few years, as online celebrities have become more visible, the harassment has upped its pitch.
Joanna Rohrback, the woman behind Prancercise, had her email hacked. Then-16-year-old Alex Lee, better known as “Alex from Target,” received dozens of death threats after a picture of the attractive teen bagging items at checkout went viral on Twitter. Later, detractors would publish his family’s personal information, including bank account and Social Security numbers.
By far the most dramatic backlashes, however, are those that play out on Twitch, the live-streaming site where some gamers have accrued audiences in the tens of thousands. Beginning in late 2013, young trolls and pranksters began calling in fake police tips on popular streamers, hoping to catch the action live when SWAT teams showed up at the player’s house.
“I had police point a gun at my little brothers because of you,” the popular Twitch gamer Joshua Peters told his audience after being swatted in February 2015. “They could have been shot, they could have died. Because you chose to swat my stream.”
Unfortunately, those sorts of admonishments don’t really register among the community of people who prank, troll and otherwise harass online celebrities.
Anecdotally, at least, they appear to be quite young: Most of the people arrested for swatting have been teens. And in their minds, they’re playing the same game as the celebs themselves: doing very public and occasionally stupid things in the pursuit of greater Internet notoriety.
One of the kids who claims to have hacked Holz — at 17, he’s on the older edge of the spectrum for this kind of thing — likened it to a jokey competition, in which the celebs and their harassers are on opposing and vaguely symmetrical teams.
The Post could not, it’s worth noting, confirm the hacker’s identity, or that he hacked Holz. We found him only through the celebratory tweets he sent to his friends about the hack early on, an illustration of the weird team dynamics involved in these incidents — and the many difficulties of tracking down online trolls.
Online celebrities can’t just sign offline, of course: In many cases, they never even chose to become famous. Instead, the talent agencies and media networks that work with viral stars are urging their clients to be more cautious.
Fullscreen, which represents several thousand YouTubers, asks its stars to manage all of their passwords through an encrypted service and to use a service like Google Voice to mask their real phone number. They’re instructed to be cagey with personal information, like the name of their high school or the exact city they live in, even with journalists. And if their accounts are ever compromised, or if they’re ever doxxed or harassed, Fullscreen has direct lines of contact at several social media platforms to get problems addressed ASAP.
“It’s a weird transition, to suddenly go from normal kid to Internet celebrity,” said Julie Kennedy, vice president of talent at Fullscreen. “Sometimes they don’t realize they have to be careful.”
Holz, for one, has learned his lesson: After an anguished 24 hours, his Twitter account and the original “Damn Daniel” video have been restored. We can only hope that he has also upgraded his Twitter password.
Caitlin Dewey is the Washington Post’s digital culture critic.