“Let’s see how he reacts to his best friend of five years being killed in front of him!”
It sounds like a line from a “Black Mirror” episode. But in reality, that’s how vlogger Sam Pepper introduced his latest video, a “prank” in which Sam Golbach, one half of the Vine duo Sam and Colby, is tricked into believing he’s watching Colby Brock’s murder. It has more than 2 million views. But there’s another number that some people are hoping YouTube pays attention to: a petition with more than 100,000 signatures asking YouTube to banish Pepper from its site.
“Sam Pepper needs to be stopped. This is not his first offence and it won’t be his last, unless we stop him,” the petition’s author, Kaylee-Jade Davis, wrote.
Pepper is not unfamiliar to controversy: he previously made a “prank” video where he appeared to grope random women on the street – a video that he has since claimed was entirely staged and scripted as a “social experiment.” YouTube ended up removing the video from its site.
He is just one of many YouTube pranksters who have made careers as vlogging shock manufacturers. YouTube pranking is competitive, as we’ve recently noted: there are more than 2.5 million prank videos on the site, created by about 1.3 million accounts, according to data from Tubester. Pepper and a handful of other prankers have managed to gain followings in that competitive field by creating “pranks” that are more and more extreme. Although Pepper’s murder “prank” is disturbing, he’s not the first YouTuber to stage a death for the sake of clicks.
But Pepper has been a divisive figure in YouTube circles for reasons beyond the content of his videos. Last year, Pepper was accused of rape, an accusation that led to an LAPD investigation, the BBC reported. Other women then came forward with their own accusations against Pepper. In response, Pepper posted a statement from his attorney to Twitter, denying the allegations contained in “any and all accusations that have been made against him,” and stating that Pepper has not been arrested and was not aware of any criminal investigation by the LAPD.
It appears that Pepper’s social media presence will survive this round of backlash, too. YouTube told the BBC on Monday that it has determined the video doesn’t violate the site’s community guidelines. YouTube declined to comment on the record to the Intersect.
Pepper has the public support of both Brock and Golbach, who posted statements to Snapchat and Twitter over the past few says saying they’re all still friends. “Going into social media I knew at one point there would be a prank or something like this that would happen,” Golbach (the one who was tricked into believe he was witnessing his friend’s murder) wrote. “After thinking through it all and spending the next few days with both Colby and Sam [Pepper] I’m honestly not mad.”
Still, many have found it difficult to dismiss the video simply as a prank and move on. And some of its loudest critics include other YouTubers and social media stars:
.@sampepper I think I speak for the majority of the internet when I say please leave. You're not wanted in this space.
— Jackson Harries (@JackHarries) November 30, 2015
Sorry but Sam pepper is so disrespectful
— Teala Dunn (@TTLYTEALA) December 1, 2015
Sam Pepper do you have anything to say for yourself… pic.twitter.com/Cm34JnpXyP
— Bradlee (@OfficialBradlee) December 1, 2015
.@sampepper Disgusted + outraged by this video and it's concept. It's twisted anyway but in light of recent world events it's Just.So.Wrong.
— Carrie Hope Fletcher (@CarrieHFletcher) November 30, 2015
The whole thing was enough to attract the attention of an Anonymous-affiliated Twitter account, which posted the following:
BULLETIN: Sam Pepper has exactly 24 hours to take down the video titled "KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK" or he will incur the wrath of Anonymous.
— TheAnonMessage (@TheAnonMessages) December 1, 2015
The video, running just over five minutes, is difficult to watch, even knowing that everything was planned out in advance and no one actually dies. The “prank” begins when Golbach is attacked, blindfolded, and thrown to the ground by a masked attacker – presumably Pepper. Brock yells and pretends to be restrained as well, as if he has been kidnapped too. Once Golbach can’t see, Brock returns and helps to bind the arms and legs of his friend, and carry him to the trunk of a car. Golbach screams for help the entire time, even as the car, with him in the trunk, drives off.
The video picks up 20 minutes later, with both Golbach and Brock blindfolded and bound to two chairs. The masked attacker takes the blindfold off of Golbach, and briefly shows him that Brock is sitting next to him, with a hood over his head. The attacker then puts a gun to Brock’s head, and allows Golbach to plead for their lives. Golbach screams and cries, says that they’re “just kids,” and that Brock is “everything” to him. Then a sound like a gunshot, and Brock slumps to the ground.
You see, but don’t hear, Golbach react to what he believes is the death of his best friend, for what feels like a long time, as the camera tightens on Golbach. Brock then stands up, takes the hood off of his face and approaches his friend. Despite Brock standing before him unharmed, Golbach takes a while to understand what’s going on. “I thought you actually died,” Golbach eventually says, after Brock unbinds him from the chair. They hug.
In a later statement, Golbach said he was “not traumatized” by the whole thing. “This isn’t a video to make people laugh,” he argues, “it was supposed to show a true friendship.”
The video ends two days later, with all three social media stars sitting together. “That was crazy!” Golbach says. Pepper plugs Sam and Colby’s YouTube and Vine accounts, and concludes, “Make sure you subscribe for more pranks!”
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