Eleven-year-old Allie sways back and forth in purple pajamas, mumbling softly.
“I feel so dizzy,” says the girl, who runs a tiny YouTube channel from her bedroom in Florida. She rolls her eyes into her head and collapses onto the bed behind her, next to a pile of teddy bears. After lying there motionless for a moment, she pops back up.
“Um, I wasn’t really sure what else to add, ’cause all that was requested was to faint while putting my eyes backwards,” she says to the camera, thanking a user who goes by “Martin” for the suggestion.
Allie’s channel is full of skits that she has eagerly filmed at the request of strangers on YouTube. She’s learned that her audience particularly enjoys watching her pretend to pass out and hypnotize herself; those kinds of requests come in all the time. In January, a user known online as “Damien” even scripted a scene for her, in which she dons a leotard with little pink flowers and gets abducted, tied up and knocked unconscious.
By contrast, Martin’s channel is empty – save for a few posts in which he talks about masturbating and his desire to ejaculate on a woman’s face. Damien’s channel features a series of movie clips showing young women being beaten and attacked with chloroform.
For Allie, whose real name is being withheld, the attention is exciting. (HuffPost was able to reach her parents and inform them of the situation; they did not agree to an interview.) To the girl’s great delight, her dizzy-themed videos randomly blow up sometimes, pulling in thousands of views despite her small following. She refers to her viewers as “fans” and promises to film whatever they’d like to see. That often means unwittingly acting out sexual fetishes for predators, who flock to her content like flies.
This didn’t happen by accident. YouTube’s automated recommendation engine propels sexually implicit videos of children like Allie from obscurity into virality and onto the screens of pedophiles. Executives at the Google-owned company are well aware of this: For years, media outlets and vloggers have been sounding the alarm over YouTube’s aggressive promotion of videos featuring vulnerable and partially clothed kids. The New York Times reported last spring on a mother who was horrified to find that a video of her young daughter playing in a pool had been watched hundreds of thousands of times.
“YouTube is a company made up of parents and families,” YouTube assured users and stakeholders in the wake of that story, which laid out in detail how the platform would serve pedophiles “a catalog of videos” sexualizing children. “We’ll always do everything we can to prevent any use of our platform that attempts to exploit or endanger minors.”
But despite its statements to the contrary, YouTube continues to actively put children in danger, a HuffPost investigation has found.
The tech behemoth’s safety measures – such as its pledge to disable comments on videos prominently featuring minors – are inconsistently enforced and insufficient. Undeterred, pedophiles are openly grooming kids and compiling their videos into sexualized playlists, making girls like Allie easy prey.
What’s worse, YouTube’s algorithm is still plucking videos of children in potentially sexually suggestive scenarios – bathing, doing gymnastics, spreading their legs – and lining them up en masse for users with predatory viewing habits. It’s even pushing viewers of erotica on the site toward a repository of videos starring scantily clad minors.
YouTube could easily rein in its amplification of such problematic content – as it has promised to do time and again in the face of bad press, sweeping advertiser boycotts and threats of legislation. Instead, it has rolled out half-measures to quell the public furor while continuing to facilitate, incentivize and profit off the sexual exploitation of children.