Landis Fusato ’23 studied computer science and engineering, and was a 2022-23 Hackworth Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
In the age of the internet, we have the convenience of massive amounts of information at our fingertips. YouTube is a platform that provides much of this information, with a billion hours of content watched around the world every single day. While these platforms have many benefits, there is also a dark side to YouTube, filled with extremism and violence. While YouTube has committed to moderating these types of obviously immoral content, there are still many videos on the platform that could be viewed as ethically questionable. The current business model in which these YouTubers make money does not encourage them to behave ethically, and YouTube itself does not seem terribly interested in changing this.
The purpose of this article is to help the users of online platforms make informed ethical decisions about the content they should and should not consume. Then users can be more prepared when sifting through YouTube content, which will hopefully eventually shape YouTube for the better. While this article will only refer to individual content consumption on YouTube, it could also be applied in contexts, and for content other than videos.
YouTube Context: Keep Your Eyes on Their Videos
It is crucial to understand the incentives of the YouTube platform and the environment users are placed into. YouTube is a for-profit company and it makes money through advertising revenue. Ads are placed throughout YouTube videos and when browsing through video thumbnails. In order to maximize profit, YouTube needs to maximize ad revenue, which means showing more ads. The longer a user remains on YouTube the more videos they watch, and the more ads they see. In other words, YouTube wants to keep users on its platform for as long as possible to maximize their profits.
Users are more likely to stay on YouTube if video recommendations seem interesting to them, which means that the YouTube recommendation algorithm plays an important role. The algorithm was designed to exploit “unarticulated want.” The term itself suggests YouTube is exploring the addictive side of human nature, perhaps with manipulative intentions. As a for-profit company there is little monetary incentive to not do this, as their legally-mandated goal is to increase shareholder value, which entails increasing watch time.
While the exact structure of the recommendation algorithm remains a trade secret, it is generally understood that the algorithm improves its suggestions by tracking the user. It could collect metrics on the user such as if you click on a video, how long you watch a video for, or what interactions often occur before the user closes the app. There is good incentive to track these things since they could all contribute to more watch time. The same logic could also be applied to the ads that are presented. YouTube could track what ads are clicked on and which ads are skipped or not. In a similar manner, the algorithm will try to present ads that are more personally relevant and which have a higher chance of being clicked.
In summary, the goal of YouTube is for the user to remain on the platform for as long as possible. In order to achieve this goal, YouTube collects data on its users, constructing a profile of each user’s individual interests. The result is more relevant video recommendations, curated ads, and better search autofill suggestions. Users should realize that everything they see on YouTube has been personally curated to their interests, and while there are options to browse and search videos, these curated videos give the user the illusion of freedom, rather than actually free and unbiased content.
Prank YouTubers: Harming Others for Fun and Profit
With this context in mind, the content of popular YouTube videos can now be dissected. One such area that has many ethical concerns are videos regarding pranks. Prank YouTubers are fairly common throughout YouTube, with some external sources even compiling lists of “Best Prank YouTubers” on their own websites. Many of these videos receive millions of views, which usually consist of the YouTuber committing often offensive and embarrassing pranks on people who appear intentionally or unintentionally in their content. One such example is the case of various Zoom infiltrations of random college classes by the YouTuber named Twomad. One of the most popular videos by the creator was uploaded during the covid pandemic and received over 15 million views. It involves pranks that disrupt online college classes through random jokes or skits. Some pranks seem harmless and funny, while others actively harass or make others feel uncomfortable.
Ethical Analysis through the Markkula Center Framework
To ethically analyze the videos we can use a few of the lenses from the Markkula Center’s Framework for Ethical Decision Making.
The Rights Lens:
From the rights perspective, these pranks are unethical since they violate people’s rights when disrupting college classes. These pranks violate a student’s right to learn, a professor’s right to teach, violate the educational classroom space, and create a violation of consent to be filmed. These rights can be grouped under the general rights to an education and to privacy. Regarding education, a classroom setting, even in an online space, should be free from intentional interference to provide students with a safe and welcoming environment to learn. The right for a professor to teach undisrupted is also a moral value, because providing such an environment allows a professor to do their job to the best of their ability. These videos also are a violation of privacy. Prank videos are centered around unscripted reactions, and it can be assumed that many of these videos lack the proper consent from the people being pranked, as it often presents professors in an unflattering light as they attempt to deal with the disruption caused by the YouTuber. All these rights can be grouped into a general right to be respected, including respecting institutions and occupations. Disrupting the norm might seem funny, but ultimately it inhibits people from exercising the rights necessary for their proper roles in society.
The Utilitarian Lens:
A utilitarian viewpoint seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and so it might consider this situation in terms of quantified happiness. It can be inferred that teachers immediately feel the negative consequences of a prank due to the disruption it causes. It also distracts students, and in the long term may result in learning loss that might unpredictably affect their future. On the other hand, the YouTuber is positively affected, gaining wealth and popularity, and the viewers of their videos receive mild amusement. Overall, it is hard to know where the balance might fall, but the utilitarian viewpoint might ultimately see the disruption of education (especially if it creates a culture where this behavior is acceptable and common) as a risk too great for the sake of entertainment.
The Virtue Lens:
These types of prank videos do not encourage the development of a good society. In the case of prank videos, making money and gaining social influence by disrespecting others is not moral. People who aspire to these types of actions are expressing a vice–
perhaps greed, pride, vanity, callousness, and/or more–and should not produce content on platforms such as YouTube, since it has a direct influence on others, and especially those who are highly impressionable, such as children. Seeing these types of creators succeed by engaging in vice may encourage those who watch their videos to mimic them, and thus encourage bad behavior. In the example of school, it could encourage students to actively disrupt classes and disrespect their teachers. This would go against general virtues such as respect for others, and encourage unvirtuous thinking such as believing that the ends-justify-the-means, i.e., that getting money can justify bad behaviors.
Mukbang YouTube: Harming Oneself for Fun and Profit
Another type of content on YouTube in which a video’s ethics can be brought into question are those that involve content at the expense of the content creator. One such example would be the content produced by YouTuber Nikocado Avocado. This YouTuber is popular for his mukbang videos, which is defined by Google as, “(especially in South Korea) a video, especially one that is live-streamed, that features a person eating a large quantity of food and addressing the audience.” In this case “large quantity of food,” can mean the YouTuber consumes more than 4000 calories in a single sitting.
Creating this type of content is profitable, thus YouTube promotes an activity which ultimately can be detrimental to the health of the YouTuber. While the exact amount is not known, these videos make money, which encourages this bad behavior which negatively impacts the YouTuber’s health. The cycle then repeats. This content creator in particular has drawn concern from fans and media about his weight gain and overall health.
Ethical Analysis through the Markkula Center Framework
What might the Markkula Center Framework for Ethical Decision Making illuminate about this sort of YouTube video?
The Right Lens:
The rights lens, in this case, can apply to the content creator, who both has a right to eat what he likes, but also has a right to reasonable health. In general, putting oneself in dangerous health circumstances should be avoided. The YouTuber is doing this of his own free will, but the incentives YouTube provides creates a perverse incentive to continue pursuing detrimental behavior in a way similar to what prank videos do. There is, however, a right to freedom, and the content creator does have a right to do whatever they wish, within legal bounds, but ethically speaking, it should be within reasonable limits. Purposefully hurting oneself by one’s own free will should generally be avoided unless there are other high priority rights involved, such as when a person donates a kidney to save another person’s life. If the wrong incentives are in place, as YouTube has created, this might influence individuals to hurt themselves for lesser values such as money.
From the viewer’s perspective, they also have a right to view whatever content they choose, and they also have a right to express concern about the content they watch.
The Virtue Lens:
As potential viewers of content that is harmful to its creator, we probably do not want to encourage vices like gluttony, self-harm, and greed. Viewers are the reason this type of content makes money on a platform such as YouTube, so there is responsibility on the user’s end to watch content that is conducted in an ethical manner that respects human beings, and not the opposite. If viewers watch videos with this in mind, we can avoid creating incentives that promote vice or punish virtue, and thus help protect content creators from harming themselves. While there is an argument to be made that these people are producing this type of content for the sake of greed, it is also worth noting that we shouldn’t provide incentives in society that can encourage lack of wisdom in decision-making. The internet is full of content that could be considered extreme and outside of what we normally experience in our lives. Prolonged exposure to these types of situations through social media or platforms such as YouTube could desensitize us to vice, and encourage us to become callous (a vice where we do not care about others’ well-being) and/or promote callous behavior in others. Viewers can become victims of this system, becoming vicious ourselves, which in turn creates a feedback loop where creators continue to create more extreme content to please their viewers. Understanding these incentives is crucial to understanding how our actions, albeit small, can greatly impact our communities and create incentives that encourage lives of virtue.
The Care Ethics Lens:
YouTube content creators are essentially digital celebrities, with many possessing loyal fan bases with millions of followers worldwide. Like celebrities, there is asymmetrical caring between the viewer and the creator. The viewer certainly recognizes the content creator, and may sincerely care about them, but unless substantial effort is put forth, the creator may never know the vast majority of the individuals viewing their content. As a viewer we might feel like we know the content creator like we would a friend or a family member, so it is only natural to express concern for them when risky situations arise. In the case of this YouTuber, viewers have expressed concerns about his overall health, and recently these concerns had reached the YouTuber. While the reasoning behind the change is unknown, the YouTuber has lost considerable weight; as seen by recent videos on his other channels he mentions how he had recently lost 89 pounds. Being vocal on a mostly one-way platform like YouTube may seem futile, as though concerns go into a void and are never seen by the creator, but commenting voices may prove to be more effective than initially thought. While the content creator uses metrics to determine success, there can sometimes be a special connection that may make online fan interactions more impactful. Acknowledging there is another person on the other side of the screen that wrote out a comment or email can hold higher value than numbers, due to the value we inherently have for human interaction. From the content creators perspective, they should understand that their views and comments are (for the most part) from real life individuals, and understand that these people may feel a connection to them in some way. Content creators should hold themselves to a higher standard because of that.
There are many structural factors that encourage unethical behavior on YouTube, and many of the issues of YouTube apply to the greater domain of social media and the internet. Many of these problems are out of the hands of the individual, as they result from perverse incentives created by companies, or less-friendly interactions. But that is not to say there aren't things we can do to change the types of content consumed online. Viewers can ethically evaluate the content of a video, making a determination whether it is ethical or not, for example, by not violating rights, or acting with virtue, or showing care for others. Through community effort or expressing concerns, it might reach the content creators and promote them to change their ways … or push out creators who refuse to improve their behavior. The ethical analysis of content and content creators is something that all viewers can tangibly do now, and these same ideas can be applied in similar ways to other types of media. Through these actions, we can better understand what goes on online, and build a better and more just world.
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 YouTuber (pseudonym). “The Best Prank YouTubers.” Ranker. Last updated January 29, 2023.
 Manuel Velasquez, Dennis Moberg, Michael J. Meyer, Thomas Shanks, Margaret R. McLean, David DeCosse, Claire André, Kirk O. Hanson, Irina Raicu, and Jonathan Kwan. “A Framework for Ethical Decision Making.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Last updated November 5, 2021.
 Matthews, Melissa. “These Viral ‘Mukbang’ Stars Get Paid to Gorge on Food—at the Expense of Their Bodies.” Men’s Health. January 18, 2019.
 Steven Asarch, Moises Mendez, Charissa Cheong, and Andrew Lloyd. “Inside the rise of Nikocado Avocado, the extreme-eating YouTuber whose dramatic meltdowns have led to years of controversy and feuds.” Insider. Last updated May 3, 2023.
 Nikocado Avocado. “How Much I Weigh Now.... Pizza Mukbang.” YouTube. April 24, 2023.