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Inside the underage sex scandal that’s tearing Vine apart

There is a good chance that you’ve never heard of Carter Reynolds, the skinny, 19-year-old Angeleno who commands an army of 4.3 million fans on the short-form video platform Vine. But when Reynolds showed up at Vidcon last week — a sort of Woodstock for Internet celebrities and their hyperventilating, underage fans — the conference hotel received so many death threats that Reynolds was promptly and unceremoniously banned.

“I’m NOT a rapist,” he tweeted to his 2.4 million followers. “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

But in Reynolds’s case, there’s no need to read: You can actually see it. In a video that leaked online in June, and that Reynolds has confirmed as his, the 19-year-old repeatedly pressures his “uncomfortable” underage girlfriend into giving him oral sex.

It’s unclear how old the woman, a B-list social media celebrity, was at the time; she turned 17 just last week, and Reynolds said in a statement that the clip was taken “a long time ago.” (Neither Reynolds’ management nor the young woman’s would comment on the video.)

What is clear, however, is that sexual harassment, assault and child pornography have become epidemics in the Vine and YouTube communities. In the past two years, in fact, more than two dozen of the Internet’s top stars have been accused of, investigated for or charged with crimes related to sexual misconduct, typically involving underage teens.

“Obviously every incident is different and I think it should be considered as such,” said Hank Green, who — with his brother, the vlogger and author John Green — co-founded VidCon and DFTBA, a record label for YouTube stars. “It really does run the gamut from the simply skeezy to shocking and illegal, but we take all of it seriously and are doing our best to support the conversation about it.”

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There was Mike Lombardo, the 25-year-old YouTuber sentenced to five years for felony child porn possession after he persuaded 11 underage fans, some of them as young as 15, to send him nude photos and videos of themselves.

There was Vine star Curtis Lepore, who plead guilty to an assault charge and is serving 24 months probation after his then-girlfriend, fellow Viner Jessi Smiles, accused him of raping her while she was sleeping.

In 2014, an 18-year-old filed an incident report with the Los Angeles Police Department, claiming that the controversial YouTube prankster and former Big Brother contestant Sam Pepper had raped her after a party. While Pepper’s criminal-defense lawyer said, in a statement, that LAPD never arrested or charged his client, the news sparked an outpouring of similar accusations across the Internet: not only about Pepper, but about a boatload of other Internet-famous young men — all of them beloved by, and in frequent contact with, thousands of teenage women.

Young female fans have always been unusually affected by male celebrities. Before there was Carter Reynolds, there was One Direction; before One Direction, the Beatles.

Historically, these boy bands and celebs play an important role for young girls who aren’t really allowed to talk or think about sexuality: they’re a first crush, a cardboard cut-out on which to project oft-confusing new feelings. Teenage girls love to love celebrities, Lisa Lewis wrote way back in 1992, because it “avoids many of the traumas of teenage sexuality” — while still being, for many girls, very sexual.

But several really major things have changed since Lewis was writing in the early ‘90s. At the time, teenage girl-crushes were usually on big-name musicians and movie stars — people your average teenager could never truly hope to access. YouTube and Vine stars, on the other hand, have based their identities, and their careers, off the idea that they’re a more accessible brand of celebrity: Not only do they offer up their entire lives online, but they’re never more than an @-reply away from their so-called “community.”

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“There’s a perception that there’s not a huge break between creators and fans like there is in Hollywood,” said Jennifer Dorsey, the communications manager for the anti-harassment advocacy group Uplift Together. “And because of that, a lot of people don’t understand that there’s a power differential.”

In other words, if I’m a cute 15-year-old with a Twitter, I can absolutely slide into Carter Reynolds’s or Sam Peppers’s or Curtis Lepores’s DMs without anyone involved — fellow fans, the “star” himself — batting an eye. In fact, there are thousands of teen girls attempting just that, even as you read this: As soon as Reynolds tweets that he has “no friends,” the heart-emoji and friend-requests rolled right in: “can I be your friend?”, “I can be your friend if you want,” “I could be your friend if you give me a chance!”

A woman named Lara has tweeted the same collage of Reynolds’s face to him 810 times — she numbers every one of them. If he does ever deign to follow her back, she’ll probably change her Twitter name to “TYSM Carter” — that’s “thank you so much” — as is fan convention.

“Carter, if you see this, know that I love you so much,” tweeted one girl whose Facebook page says she’s starting high school in the fall. Reynolds favorited the tweet almost immediately — to the complete meltdown of all the girls’ other Reynolds-loving followers. (“I think he liked the power,” said one woman of another social media celebrity, whom she has publicly accused of soliciting nude photos from her when she was 15.)

It’s not difficult to see how this dynamic could be exploited by social celebrities interested in doing that: Between the incredible power imbalance, the lack of real adult supervision and the sense that behavioral conventions and boundaries are more bendable online, it’s almost surprising that we don’t hear even more of these stories than we already do. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that fellow fans, who feel they know Vine and YouTube stars intimately, are quick to turn on people who accuse them of wrongdoing.

“There’s incredible support in these communities, but there’s also an incredible backlash,” said Katie Tryman, Uplift’s co-executive director. “People do come to us with their experiences, saying ‘I’m not ready to say anything yet, I’m not ready for that.'”

Uplift Together is trying to change that dynamic: In the wake of the more than 70 harassment allegations that shook the YouTube and Vine communities last year, a group of female fans banded together to start the nonprofit group, which tries to address the types if sexual abuse specific to online fandoms. They publish a popular Tumblr that discusses fan issues and convene discussions with YouTubers; they’ve also drafted a “safer community pledge” that was passed around Tumblr.

Tryman and Dorsey acknowledge, though, that real change will have to come from these communities, themselves. Change like the kind that finally toppled Carter Reynolds.

On July 23, dozens of fans began tweeting at Vidcon and the Greens, asking why, given the leaked video and his other recent actions, Reynolds had been allowed to attend the conference. By the early hours of July 24, Hank had tweeted at Reynolds and told him not to come back. (“I am proud to see [fans] holding their favorite creators accountable for their actions,” Green later said.)

“Good luck kicking me out,” Reynolds tweeted. “I’m not gonna be treated with disrespect for no reason.”

“You mean,” a one-time fan tweeted back, “like you disrespect women?”

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