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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

YouTuber Valkyrae’s skincare fiasco proves online drama doesn’t produce accountability

(The Washington Post)

“Misstep? I wouldn’t call this a misstep. I think this is bigger than a misstep,” Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter said during a Saturday stream in reference to the RFLCT skin care line she helped launch last week. The product, and her tie to it, was met with controversy due to the shaky science underpinning products that fight skin damage from screens. Hofstetter’s stream audience went on to suggest other descriptors in the chat, which she read aloud.

“Negligence?” the 29 year-old content creator said. “Yeah. Naive? Due diligence?” Then she paused, glanced away from the camera, and took a long, rueful breath.

One of YouTube’s most popular streamers, Hofstetter had already endured days of widespread criticism and drama. Thousands upon thousands of tweets, messages, and videos followed her promotion (and, to hear her initially tell it, enthusiastic role in the creation of) of RFLCT, a skin care line backed by brand incubator Ideavation Labs and beauty store company Ulta. RFLCT purports to prevent damage from blue light, something that multiple dermatologists have said is not scientifically proven to be harmful to skin. Nearly 30 minutes into her apology stream Saturday, it was clear she understood she’d messed up. And yet, this was not the end of the saga, which continued well into this week.

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The RFLCT fiasco, initially an attempt on audiences’ part at seeking accountability from a multimillionaire public figure and some companies around a questionable product, quickly turned into more grist for the content mill. Numerous agendas proliferated: fans who wanted to defend their favorite streamer, men who saw a notable woman as an easy target for their own unrelated grievances, and other content creators who saw a quick ticket to the top, just to name a few. On the Internet where content is king, it became aimless, endless spectacle.

The initial concerns from some in Hofstetter’s audience were well-founded, according to multiple dermatologists that spoke with The Post. While large sources of blue light like the sun can produce skin damage, blue light from screens needs to be researched to a much greater extent. Moreover, they pointed out that the ingredients listed in RFLCT products are not capable of reflecting blue light, despite what the name might suggest.

Many health and wellness products are not well-regulated, which allows companies to slip into scientific gray areas and profit off manufactured fears. However, the broader discourse surrounding RFLCT did not linger on these points for long, nor on the companies that produced the product line in the first place. Instead, it became more about who supported Hofstetter and who didn’t.

Some, like Facebook and Twitch streamer Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang and Twitch star Sykkuno (who has not provided his real name), have offered defenses of Hofstetter’s character.

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“[Hofstetter] has never shown me to be malicious or calculating,” said Wang during a recent stream. “She has shown me to be naive and impulsive — and too trusting. Overly loyal to people and organizations that don’t necessarily deserve her loyalty. … And unfortunately, that means she’s susceptible to being taken advantage of.”

Others, like Twitch megastar Félix “xQc” Lengyel and popular streamer Natalia “Alinity” Mogollon, have defended streamers who’ve elected to criticize Hofstetter or stay silent.

“If there’s a problem with the product and the fact-checking, that’s kind of like her job,” Lengyel said during a stream earlier this week. “[If I did something similar] I’m solo. I don’t assume that the whole squad is on my side and now we’re fighting together. It’s just not how it works.”

“[Hofstetter] was really upset that her friends didn’t come and defend her, but she needs to understand that a lot of people are afraid,” said Mogollon in a separate stream earlier this week. “It’s not worth it, getting destroyed by the Internet.”

This is not a new discussion in the world of livestreaming. On platforms that have intertwined ideals of authenticity and friendship with brands and products, it’s an ever-ongoing conversation. And, at least from a viewership standpoint, it is a reliable attraction.

This is the sort of drama that springs up on YouTube and Twitch every time a streamer drops the ball, whether they’ve gotten caught red-handed disingenuously profiting off a gambling site or run into linguistic difficulties at a burger restaurant that sparked accusations and streamer drama. The results, too, are often similar; despite the vastly different significance of the two aforementioned examples, creators involved emerged with their careers intact.

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The great strength of livestreaming as a medium is that anything can be content, no matter how boring or insignificant it might seem in, say, a TV show or a movie. But when everything is content, it’s easy for the original point of an incident or argument to be obscured. Ultimately, it’s just more content: Disposable and easily forgotten. Filling, but lacking in nutrition. Whatever lasting lessons might be learned from the RFLCT episode — something Hofstetter said during her stream she views as a possible silver lining of all this — are quickly washed away in livestreaming’s ever-churning rapids. Even a longer-lasting controversy like this will ultimately recede into the rearview in another week or month. A new, similar source of content will inevitably take its place.

In recent days, even the search for content has become content, with some streamers accusing each other of trying to “farm drama” from the RFLCT incident. For example, political streamer Hasan “HasanAbi” Piker brought that accusation against popular streamer Matthew “Mizkif” Rinaudo following the latter’s attempt to support Hofstetter amid criticism from Piker and many others.

“Somehow, Miz saved the day?” Piker said during a recent stream. “He literally watched [Hofstetter’s stream], farmed drama, then called Rae to continue farming drama, and then became the savior all while s------- on me.” Piker added that he respected Rinaudo’s tenacity, but that ultimately “he’s doing content; he’s a f------ content demon.”

Twitch star Imane “Pokimane” Anys concurred with Piker’s read on the situation, albeit a bit more charitably.

“I feel like you’re looking for some sort of affirmation in regards to what you did,” she said during a streamed conversation with Rinaudo. “I agree that if you weren’t the one reacting to her stream, it would have been xQc or Hasan or likely all three of you at the same time fighting for a clip.”

Lost in all of this are some very real questions that need answering: At what point does online mob justice cease to be an effective means of seeking accountability? What’s the use in going after an (admittedly influential) figurehead like Hofstetter when the companies — and especially the larger, notoriously under-regulated industry — that produced a problematic product remain relatively unscathed? Why are growing numbers of companies like these partnering with video game influencers? Is a culture that increasingly hinges on ads, promotion and trends — and on creators’ friends and colleagues publicly supporting their endeavors — intrinsically more susceptible to dodgy business?

As part of a reply to The Post’s inquiries, Joanna Coles, co-founder of Ideavation, the brand incubator that helped launch RFLCT, blamed the controversy on “online critics” who just wanted to “bring Rae down” because of her gender. There is some truth to this; male creators have collaborated with sketchy companies in recent times, and while they’ve received blowback, it hasn’t been quite so unanimous or vicious. In some similar cases — for example, when content creators have collaborated with companies on blue light glasses and esports performance wear, neither of which are supported by scientific consensus — there’s hardly been a peep from the peanut gallery. It’s also worth noting that Hofstetter is far from the first to peddle an unfounded wellness product; Instagram is a hotbed of wellness scams and scandals.

That said, portions of the Twitch and YouTube audience have become fed up with streamers’ recent ties to gambling companies and crypto pump and dump schemes, which might partly explain the RFLCT backlash: Fans are sick of feeling like their favorite video game content creators are trying to take advantage of them, regardless of whether that’s the creator’s true motive.

But influencers are not solely responsible for these products and plans. In RFLCT’s case, Coles’s response failed to acknowledge RFLCT, Ulta or Ideavation’s role in the proceedings. Ultimately, though, it proved somewhat prophetic. Streamers and viewers are now mostly talking about support for Hofstetter versus a lack thereof and, in some cases, accusing each other of trying to bring her down in exchange for clout and clicks. The companies and people equally or perhaps more responsible, in turn, have been reduced to side characters.

Hofstetter, meanwhile, has landed in the odd spot of being both a public figure with all the responsibility that entails, but also a human being who is floundering in the face of backlash that has grown overwhelming. She also finds herself beholden to an enormous audience that has expressed open hostility toward a venture she was initially enthusiastic about, which creates further incentive for an about-face. If her Saturday stream is anything to go on, she appears exhausted, exasperated by RFLCT’s decision to keep its proprietary formula and research private (and her own failure to recognize what she’d agreed to), and is looking for a way out.

“I’ve had some terrible thoughts — just some really terrible thoughts. I’ve always prided myself on trying to be a good person, but what happened was such a f----- up thing, and I was part of it,” Hofstetter said on her stream. “I am in a bound contract. … I don’t know if I really want to continue, but I don’t know if I really have a choice.”

In statements to The Post, RFLCT said it stands by its product but also supports Hofstetter’s decision to extricate herself from it.

“Of course we stand by our products, which will continue to be sold at Ulta,” said a RFLCT spokesperson when reached by The Post this week. “Valkyrae’s well-being is our main priority, which is why we support her decision to wind down from her co-founder role. RFLCT was inspired by Valkyrae’s personal experience with blue light and will remain a skin care line dedicated to providing clean and safe formulas. Valkyrae will always have our utmost support both personally and professionally.”

Despite Hofstetter’s regrets and misgivings, she remains the focal point of online ire. This, unfortunately, is what happens when human beings are also brands: The brand subsumes the person, and the idea of attacking a brand rarely gives people pause. Doubtless, Hofstetter has more institutional support than the average person — she works with a team and co-owns one of the most influential esports organizations in 100 Thieves — but even then, there are limits.

When every conflict inflates exponentially over social media, it’s nearly impossible to know where the line is. What’s one more tweet or DM or video? How many drops before the bucket overflows?

After a certain point, this ceases to be a central concern. Instead, content creators replicate the tendencies of talking heads on broadcast news shows. A resolution that leaves things better than they were before is, at best, a tertiary concern. First and foremost, platforms like Twitch and YouTube incentivize creators to capitalize on the big ticket item of the week to prevent viewers from getting bored and going elsewhere.

This is the nature of controversy in an online ecosystem that lacks real mechanisms for accountability. Mob justice is the only form of justice that feels effective to those participating — that reliably elicits a response from those with power and influence — and so it is what people resort to. The content creation ecosystem amplifies the mob, increasing the likelihood of a response even further. But these responses are typically intended to pacify crowds, not precede actual change.

The end result is a one-size-fits-all method of extracting accountability that hyper-fixates on individuals over larger, more faceless entities. It produces a cycle in which topics and targets might change, but empowered companies, industries, and systems remain the same. Lessons come slowly and at great cost, when they come at all. Those who pay the price are often the most visible, not necessarily the most responsible.

“The people that work behind the scenes … they don’t get to experience what I’m experiencing,” Hofstetter said during her stream. “I’m the face for it. I’m the creative collaborator for it. So I’m the one that gets all of it. Isn’t that crazy?”