Elsagate is a neologism referring to the controversy surrounding supposedly child-friendly videos on YouTube and YouTube Kids which contain themes that are inappropriate for children. Most videos under this classification are notable for presenting content such as violence, sexual situations, fetishes, drugs, alcohol, toilet humor, and dangerous or upsetting situations and activities.
The videos often feature popular characters from family-oriented media, sometimes via crossovers, used without legal permission; the term itself is composed of Elsa (a character from the 2013 Disney animated film Frozen, who is frequently depicted in such videos) and -gate (a suffix for scandals). However, the Elsagate controversy has also included channels such as Toy Freaks that do not feature child/family-friendly characters but real children, and have raised concern about possible child abuse.
Most videos in this category are either live action films or crude digital animations, although a few channels have been using more elaborate techniques such as clay animation. Despite YouTube's age restriction policies, these videos are sometimes tagged in such a way to circumvent the inbuilt child safety algorithms, even making their way into YouTube Kids, and are thus difficult to moderate due to the large scale of the platform. In order to capture search results and attract attention from users, their titles and descriptions feature names of famous characters, as well as keywords like "education", "learn colors", "nursery rhymes", etc. They also include automatically placed ads, making them lucrative to their owners and to YouTube. Despite the objectionable and often confusing nature of these videos, many attract millions of views.
While criticism of the channels themselves has existed since at least 2016, public awareness of the phenomenon grew in 2017, as it became part of a broader controversy about child safety on YouTube. That year, after reports by several media outlets, YouTube adopted stricter guidelines regarding children's content. In late November, the company started to mass delete channels and videos falling into the Elsagate category, as well as large amounts of other inappropriate videos or user's comments relating to children.
Elsagate channels have existed since at least 2014. In June 2016, The Guardian published an article about the channel Webs and Tiaras, which had been created in March of the same year. Apparently based in Canada, Webs and Tiaras had become in two months YouTube's third most-viewed channel with about 1.7 billion views. The channel showed people dressed as characters like Spider-Man, Elsa and the Joker engaging in bizarre and nonsensical actions: the videos had background music but no dialogue. The article also reported that several near-identical channels, named Toy Monster, The Superheroes Life and The Kids Club had appeared on YouTube.
In January 2017, one channel under control of a YouTube partner in Vietnam, Spiderman Frozen Marvel Superhero Real Life, blocked their Vietnamese subscribers after complaints from parents regarding the content of their videos. The channel's owner was later fined by Vietnamese authorities.
The high number of views have led some to voice concerns that such channels are gaming the system by using bots or click farms to inflate viewing figures to higher proportions; however, there is no evidence for this.
In February 2017, The Verge commented that "adults dressing up in costume and acting out weird, wordless skits has become a booming industry on the world’s biggest video platform" and that while many videos were "puerile but benign", others featured more questionable content such as scatological humor, and violent or sexual situations. The article noted that most videos were made with a very limited budget and "a few Halloween costumes", which made them easy to produce and contributed to their multiplication. It also attributed their success to the frequent use of "Freudian concerns" which young children may find fascinating, amusing or frightening, such as "peeing, pooping, kissing, pregnancy, and the terrifying notion of going to the doctor and getting a shot".
Also in February, The Awl published an article on Webs and Tiaras and similar channels, describing their content as "nonsensically nightmarish" with titles like "Frozen Elsa gets CHICKEN FEET!", "Frozen Elsa gets BRAIN BELLY!", "Frozen Elsa & Anna TEAR SPIDERMAN APART!", "EVIL SANTA KIDNAPS Frozen Elsa & Spiderman!", or "Frozen Elsa FLUSHES Spiderman in Toilet!". The website commented that the videos were "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." In most videos, the like and dislike options were disabled, making it impossible to know how many users were actually engaging with them. Many videos featured hundreds of comments in gibberish, some being written by similar channels in an apparent attempt to attract more clicks.
In March, the BBC ran a piece titled "The disturbing YouTube videos that are tricking children". The article focused on a Peppa Pig imitation where the titular character's teeth are painfully pulled out by a dentist, and a video featuring said character burning down an occupied house. The article also mentioned the existence of "hundreds" of similar videos, ranging from unauthorised but otherwise harmless copies of authentic cartoons, to frightening and gory content.
CTV News also reported in March about YouTube's "fake toons problem", with adult-themed imitations of popular children's shows frequently appearing on YouTube Kids: "In some cases, the video will feature a kid-friendly thumbnail, while the video itself might be entirely different" and be very unsuitable for small children. The network commented that such videos were "often nightmares to behold, with lots of crying and frightening scenes involving monsters and blood. Many of these videos venture into dark territory, with the characters often being chased, attacked or injured in a bloody manner."
The term Elsagate was coined on the Internet in 2017. During the summer of that year, it became a popular hashtag on Twitter as users called attention to the presence of such material on YouTube and YouTube Kids. On Reddit, an Elsagate subreddit (r/Elsagate) was created on 23 June to discuss the phenomenon, soon attracting tens of thousands of users.
In November 2017, several newspapers published articles about the YouTube channel Toy Freaks, which had been created two years earlier by a single father called Greg Chism. Toy Freaks had a total of 8.53 million subscribers and was among the top 100 most viewed, before it was shut down that month. The channel often featured Chism's daughters and in most cases showed them scared and crying.
These videos could also be found in local video platforms in China, where YouTube is blocked, including Tencent, Youku and iQiyi. Tencent have set up a specific team to monitor its video platform, and permanently shut down 121 accounts and blocked more than 4,000 search keywords by January 2018. The Ministry of Public Security of China suggested that netizens should report these videos once found.
On November 4, 2017, The New York Times published an article about the "startling" videos slipping past YouTube's filters and disturbing children, "either by mistake or because bad actors have found ways to fool the YouTube Kids algorithms". On November 6, author James Bridle published on Medium a piece titled Something is wrong on the internet, in which he commented about the "thousands and thousands of these videos": "Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatize, and abuse children, automatically and at scale". Bridle also observed that the confusing content of many videos seemed to result from the constant "overlaying and intermixing" of various popular tropes, characters and keywords. As a result, even videos with actual humans started resembling automated content, while "obvious parodies and even the shadier knock-offs" interacted with "the legions of algorithmic content producers" until it became "completely impossible to know what is going on". On November 17, Internet commentator Philip DeFranco posted a video addressing "the insane YouTube Kids problem".
The New York Times found that one of the channels featuring counterfeit cartoons, Super Zeus TV, was linked to a website called SuperKidsShop.com, registered in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. A man working for SuperKidsShop.com confirmed that his partners were responsible for the videos, on which "a team of about 100 people" were working. Subsequent requests for an interview went unanswered.
On November 9, members of the satirical sound collage group Negativland presented an episode of their weekly radio show Over the Edge dedicated to Elsagate. "Modern Animal Kids" "threads Elsagate through a remix of three 90's episodes of Over The Edge which focused on media for children, all broadcast in the final years before Teletubbies pioneered marketing to the 6 to 18 month old demographic."
On November 22, BuzzFeed News published an article about unsettling videos that depict children in disturbing and abusive situations. The information on the article came with the assistance of journalist and human rights activist Matan Uziel whose investigation and report to the FBI on that matter were sent on September 22, informing its leadership about "tens of thousands of videos available on YouTube that we know are crafted to serve as eye candy for perverted, creepy adults, online predators to indulge in their child fantasies."
On November 23, French-Canadian outlet Tabloïd released a video investigation about Toy Monster, a channel linked to Webs and Tiaras. They confronted the videos' creators – based out of the south shore of Quebec City – who refused to be interviewed. One of the actors featured in the videos anonymously stated that he was contractually obligated to refrain from comment. The investigation revealed that identical content was being posted on numerous channels apparently operated by the same people.
On November 28, Forbes presented Elsagate as an example of the "dark underbelly of the digital age". The article's author commented that the "gargantuan scale" of the problem seemed to indicate that children's content on YouTube had become "a monster beyond our control" and that "it's terrifying to imagine how many toddlers have been affected" by Elsagate, "in ways beyond our comprehension".
Effect on children
The New York Times quoted pediatrics professor Michael Rich, who confirmed that these videos were potentially harmful to children who could find them even more upsetting as "characters they thought they knew and trusted" were shown behaving in an improper or violent manner.
Response from YouTube
In August 2017, YouTube announced its new guidelines on content and monetization. In an ongoing series of efforts to demonetize controversial and offensive videos, it was announced that creators would no longer be able to monetize videos which "made inappropriate use of family friendly characters." In November of the same year, it announced that it would implement "a new policy that age restricts this content in the YouTube main app when flagged".
The controversy extended to channels which featured not necessarily children's characters but actual children, who sometimes performed inappropriate or dangerous activities under the guidance of adults. As part of a broader action, YouTube deleted the channel Toy Freaks, which featured a father (Greg Chism) and his two daughters in potentially abusive situations. Chism was subsequently investigated by child protection officials in Illinois and Missouri for alleged child abuse. In December 2017, authorities announced that Chism would not face criminal charges. Before its removal, the channel had over 8.5 million subscribers.
It was also revealed in the media that many videos featuring minors – frequently uploaded by the children themselves and showing innocent content – had attracted comments from pedophiles. Some of these videos were monetized. As a result of the controversy, several major advertisers froze spending on YouTube.
On November 22, 2017 YouTube announced that it had deleted over 50 channels and thousands of videos which did not fit the new guidelines. On November 27, the company said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that it had "terminated more than 270 accounts and removed over 150,000 videos", "turned off comments on more than 625,000 videos targeted by child predators" and "removed ads from nearly 2 million videos and over 50,000 channels masquerading as family-friendly content". Forbes commented that many problematic videos could still be seen on the platform and that "the sheer volume of videos hastily deleted from the site prove that YouTube's algorithms were utterly ineffective at protecting young children".
The motives behind these videos are unknown, although The Verge pointed out that the contents may be fascinating to children. As many of the videos have millions of views and include advertisements, The New York Times suggested the videos are financially lucrative.
Elsagate also became the subject of a conspiracy theory that states the videos are attempting to normalize pedophilia or sexual abuse against minors. Some also suggest the videos may be related to brainwashing and the gibberish replies below the videos are coded messages.
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The name Elsagate is derived from bizarre videos featuring Elsa from the Disney cartoon Frozen and Spiderman indulging in despicable acts no child should ever see. Gore, violence, sexual fetishism, abuse and rape are the prevailing themes in such videos.
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- Episode downloadable at negativland.com's OTE files.
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In August of this year, YouTube announced that it would no longer allow creators to monetize videos which “made inappropriate use of family friendly characters.” Today it’s taking another step to try and police this genre.
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