The Messy, Influential World of YouTube’s Tabloid Journalism

Tea and drama channels evolved to cover drama in the influencer world. But as the genre grows, its tendency to spread misinformation is becoming more of a problem.

by | February 11, 2021

In May 2019, popular YouTube beauty guru Tati Westbrook released a 43-minute-long takedown video of her former mentee James Charles, sparking one of the biggest ongoing scandals in YouTube history. Among other claims in the video, Westbrook accused Charles of predatory behavior toward straight boys. Fellow beauty creator Jeffree Star backed her up on Twitter, saying that Westbrook’s claims were “100% true” and called Charles a “danger to society.” Charles lost nearly three million subscribers before he released his own video “No More Lies” a week later to address the accusations and present evidence to clear his name — which he effectively did, but not before his reputation and mental health suffered.As the scandal developed, perceptions of its main players were shaped in large part by the YouTube tea and commentary community: channels that document gossip about the platform’s prominent creators and are often praised by their fans for holding those creators accountable. While some channels waited for the Charles situation to develop, resulting in thorough, comprehensive explainers, the predominant narrative on tea and drama channels after the first video cast Westbrook as the victim and Charles as the villain. Then, after Charles posted his video, the characterization flipped, and Westbrook was viewed as a bully and a liar. Last June, Westbrook released yet another video titled “Breaking My Silence …” in which she accused Star and YouTuber Shane Dawson of manipulating her into releasing her initial James Charles takedown, recasting the story from a falling-out between friends to a byzantine power struggle within the platform’s beauty community in which Westbrook herself was a pawn.

In a void of adequate internet culture reporting from mainstream news outlets during the mid-to-late 2010s, the YouTube commentary community emerged as a major source for internet culture news and analysis for those who are Very Online. During a massive influencer scandal like the Charles episode, these channels provide context and explainers on drama as it is unfolding — but they don’t always get it right. Commentary YouTubers are both voracious consumers and creators of internet content, which gives them a deeper level of understanding of the sensibilities of their digital native audience. These channels have the unmatched ability to hold viewers’ interest and have the potential to bring accountability to the world of online creators. But the way in which they source and analyze their reporting can lead to misinformation, with serious impact on the massive influencer economy.

Prototypical versions of YouTuber news and commentary channels have existed since the early days of the platform, but the contemporary tea and drama formats emerged in the mid-to-late 2010s. Taylor Lorenz, technology reporter for the New York Times, cites YouTuber Daniel “Keemstar” Keem’s popular DramaAlert channel, launched in 2014, as a vanguard. The tea channel format that is popular today, Lorenz says, started gaining popularity a few years later with the increased accessibility of video editing software and the rise of drama-generating YouTube stars, something she identifies as the “Jake Paul era of YouTube.”

In the early days of his channel, Keem covered gamers and vloggers, the creators who made up the first generation of YouTube celebrities. But by the late 2010s, in part due to a change in YouTube’s algorithm that prioritized attention-grabbing content, outrageous pranks and storytimes  began to dominate the platform. Known for their controversial stunts and drama-filled vlogs, creators like Paul, his brother Logan, the members of his Team 10 house, and Tana Mongeau were the perfect subjects for commentary channels to gossip about. Around this time, beauty gurus like Star, Charles, and their peers started amassing huge audiences on the platform. This new generation of beauty YouTubers were more scandal-prone than their predecessors, leading to major coverage from tea channels.

As social media influencers became mainstream celebrities, the commentary channel ecosystem emerged as a forum to discuss figures who weren’t regularly reported on in traditional media, but were nevertheless household names to young netizens. This type of content has found a massive audience, with videos by popular creators, like Spill or D’Angelo Wallace, garnering millions of views. Tea, drama, and commentary channels have a unique advantage over traditional news outlets because they are native to the platforms they cover, commentary YouTuber Tiffany Ferguson says.

“Because we are YouTubers, we have that inherent understanding,” Ferguson says. “Some mainstream media report on internet things or YouTube things, and they just clearly don’t even understand or respect YouTube at all. That experience gives commentary or drama channels that edge, because we get it.” Sister Spill, a 16-year-old tea creator who has over 400,000 subscribers on YouTube, agrees that commentary and drama videos are more appealing than reporting in traditional media, which she says “[come] from the perspective of older, 20- or 30-year-olds trying to talk about teen drama.”

“I feel like a lot of them aren’t grasping what’s actually going on,” she says. “That’s maybe why [teens] refer to younger people like me.”

These creators have huge platforms with substantial influence, but with great power comes great responsibility. Many of these YouTubers present themselves as news channels, on par with entertainment outlets like E!, TMZ, or People, and many of the research and reporting tactics they use —reaching out to influencers for comment, compiling information from Twitter and other social platforms, analyzing court documents, and pulling information from previous articles — are familiar to most online newsrooms. “We are news. We research, we include facts, and when something seems uneasy, we speak up,” said the creator of tea channel Spill Sesh in a video responding to a clip of Charles criticizing the tea community. “That’s the point of the community — to inform subscribers about the people they are watching,” she adds. “We give you information on what we know. Sometimes we say an opinion on it, and you’re free to agree or disagree.”

Tea and drama channels do a thorough job of gathering receipts and keeping close tabs on what influencers share. However, while many of the stories they report on have some basis in fact, they cannot always verify information and seldom break news, which is why some creators avoid labelling themselves as “reporters” or “independent journalists.” Instead, they represent themselves as top sources for influencer gossip, while also skirting responsibility for the information they present. Insider digital culture reporter Kat Tenbarge says that the distinction tea creators often make between their work and that of professional reporters is that their job is to talk about news, not find it themselves.

Some of this hesitation has to do with liability concerns. “A lot of them don’t want to be the one who is held accountable if the information that they’re putting out is wrong,” says Tenbarge. “We have already seen instances where people have had their channel terminated or people received backlash for starting rumors or spreading information that is incorrect. I think a lot of channels are wary of being the ones to [break] news as opposed to react to it.” In addition to lacking the resources or training to pull off a long-term investigation, most channels are run by independent creators without access to legal aid, so reporting on big scandals without the proper resources to verify information can put them at risk of being sued.

Yet despite wariness about entering new information into the record, tea and drama channels regularly express opinions about scandals, and their takes can hold considerable weight. (Dramageddon and the saga of influencer Jaclyn Hill’s lipstick scandals are relevant examples.) Some creators have been accused of harnessing these channels’ power in the internet court of public opinion for their own gain. Before Westbrook released her “Breaking My Silence …” video last year, a number of drama channels made videos describing quid-pro-quo working relationships with Star in which Star had fed them dirt throughout the years. Drama creator Ashlye Kyle made a video presenting screenshots of texts from Star that showed him feeding her information ahead of Westbrook’s first video in 2019, allowing her to capitalize off of the drama much more quickly. Another drama influencer, Sanders Kennedy, made a video showing messages from Star offering inside scoops for potential videos. Drama YouTuber Blaire White claimed Star showed her an elusive voice memo that he described as “proof” of Charles’ wrongdoing.

These channels insist that they weren’t Star’s “puppets.” However, despite acknowledging that Star could often be manipulative and dishonest, they often took Star’s insider information — usually rumors sent via text messages and voice memos — at face value and created content based on it. This reveals a massive flaw in the sourcing and dissemination of influencer gossip. Of course, everyone wants to break a big story, and they want to relay gossip from prominent sources. Sometimes, channels will publish videos before getting confirmation or a statement from everyone involved. “If you’re a drama channel, you need to talk about things as soon as possible,” says Ferguson. “That’s why a lot of drama or tea channels will post something right away — then they’ll be able to post an update the next day and another the next day. It feeds [your channel] to be able to make more content more frequently.”

Without fact-checking stories on influencer drama, some of these channels can end up doing more harm than good — they can spread false information or even encourage harassment. In the case of Dramageddon 2, the claim that James Charles is a predator not only took a toll on him, but it perpetuated homophobic stereotypes by depicting Charles as a gay man trying to forcibly turn a straight man queer. The gossip also did a disservice to survivors of sexual abuse by powerful people. The pursuit of accountability is difficult without confirmation or context from primary sources. Channels that disseminate inaccurate or incorrect information undermine the credibility of the stories they push, especially when those stories describe serious allegations.

Ferguson, who is known for her thorough research and critical analysis on her channel’s Internet Analysis series, is acutely aware of the responsibility that comes with her reach. Five years ago, she used to simply turn on her camera and talk without fear of being controversial. Now, she is more careful about putting out content based on rumors or unsubstantiated claims, typically prefacing unconfirmed information with disclaimers. Each of her videos takes about seven to eight days to produce, and two or three of those days are dedicated to gathering research on a topic and fact-checking the information she finds. Ferguson says YouTube doesn’t necessarily need to be a place for hard journalism, but it would be good to see more journalistic practices in the commentary community.

“Even though I don’t think a lot of people hold commentary channels to that standard, it’s just something that I’m too aware of now to go back,” she says.

The channels’ difficulty independently confirming information limits their ability to cover serious allegations in the YouTube community. In October, Insider published an exposé by Kat Tenbarge on Star’s history of sexual abuse and offers of hush money to victims. Despite the proliferation of videos speculating on the Charles allegations last year — some of which turned out to be fabricated or unsubstantiated — much of the tea and drama community remained quiet about the report, at least on YouTube. There were initially fewer videos talking about Tenbarge’s investigation, in which events were corroborated by dozens of sources, than there were about the James Charles accusations. A search for terms relating to the report brings up a handful of videos about the article, grouped with videos on unrelated Star scandals. When Tenbrage wrote a follow-up to her initial story that featured a photo of the alleged hush money check, more channels discussed the allegations (including drama OG Keemstar) because there was a document to present as evidence of wrongdoing. Still, the story did not travel as far or wide on YouTube as Dramageddon 2.0.

Perhaps it is a lesson learned from the handling of last year’s claims against Charles, in which the narrative quickly changed after Charles shared his side of the story. It could also be a result of fear, as Jeffree Star is a powerful figure in the YouTube beauty community who has previously said that he has dirt on “everyone.” Or it could be, as Spill Sesh said on her channel, that “it’s not even drama, it’s real.” The allegations against Star aren’t about frivolous Twitter spats or faulty merch deliveries — they are crimes. Tenbarge acknowledges that serious topics are often difficult to package into digestible videos. “With the Jeffree story, you do cross the line where it’s not a simple story,” she says. “Whereas with the James Charles [story]…the fact that there was no substantiation for any of those claims made the story travel faster. Because it wasn’t like James Charles did this to this specific person, or these specific people. It was just the idea that James is a predator, which just took hold.”

The lack of coverage of the serious, specific allegations against Star could also be an attempt to avoid demonetization, an issue that has increasingly shaped YouTube content over the past few years. After the first adpocalypse, YouTube began implementing AI to scan and flag videos with objectionable content to avoid running ads alongside them. YouTube prioritizes brand-safe content for advertisers — especially their premium YouTube Select ads  — and YouTube’s guidelines for securing ads suggests channels avoid discussing “controversial issues” and “sensitive events,” which is so vague it could describe nearly anything.

A lot of tea and drama channels are, arguably, not brand safe: they discuss topics such as sexual assault allegations, racist tweets, and abortion. However, they try their best to adhere to YouTube’s rules by censoring out sensitive words — anything from sexual language to the word “kill” in the clothing brand name Killstar — in both voiceovers and images in order to avoid getting flagged by the platform’s AI. They keep language vague and ambiguous, too. In Spill Sesh’s video on Tenbarge’s article, for example, she avoids explicitly saying that Star is accused of sexual assault, opting instead to say he’s facing “a number of accusations.”

Tea and drama channels have more freedom to discuss difficult subjects off of YouTube. If you follow any drama creator’s Twitter, you are more likely to see their uncensored, candid takes on the latest influencer news whether it is gossip or serious allegations. Some, like Spill Sesh and Sister Spill, have podcasts where they can expand on the details they can’t get into on their main channels. YouTube makes it difficult for these creators to discuss controversies without using euphemisms, so as the genre evolves, tea and drama channels may find different platforms to better suit their needs.

Despite their flaws, tea, drama, and commentary channels will command a large audience as long there is an appetite for influencer drama and news, delivered online — so basically, for the foreseeable future. While they may not be breaking any major news, they do often cover the influencers that traditional media doesn’t: creators who are adjacent to the most famous internet stars but aren’t quite as well-known in mainstream popular culture. These creators still have massive followings online, but they don’t hold the same cultural weight as a James Charles or a Charli D’Amelio, for instance.

Mashable culture reporter Morgan Sung says that, while these channels may not have the same level of reliability as news outlets, they can have access to influencers in a way that traditional reporters do not. Identifying oneself as a journalist can often put influencers on edge, Sung says, so tea channels have the advantage of approaching sources as peers. They also do the hard work of verifying screenshots and condensing big drama that unfolds across YouTube videos, podcasts, Instagram Live, texts, and voice memos into a comprehensible story.

While some tea and drama channels create questionable content, each individual creator lies on a spectrum of reliability. Sung points out that the same applies to traditional media; a story on InfoWars would not carry the same weight as something from the L.A. Times, and the same expectations of media literacy can be applied to the world of drama coverage on YouTube.

“You have to treat watching tea channels as you would treat reading or consuming any kind of news, where you have to get it from a variety of sources and figure out your own takeaway,” Sung says.

As the tea and commentary communities continue to grow, so too does the coverage of digital media in mainstream publications. Digital culture has grown significantly as a beat since the DramaAlert days, with the maturation of Gen Z ushering in a larger audience for this type of writing. Sung, Tenbarge, and Lorenz all mentioned that tea and commentary channels inform and inspire their own reporting; Ferguson similarly said that reporting and criticism from traditional media informs her videos. Reporters can note the affinities of internet users by observing who and what commentary channels talk about most, and commentary creators get more reliable information about rumors circulating in the influencer community from mainstream outlets. As the two continue to grow parallel to each other, a symbiotic relationship has formed between some YouTube reporters and reporters in traditional media, adjusting to fill the gaps that the other has left.

Tea and drama channels, while functioning similar to news outlets, may never adopt the same editorial standards as them — and they don’t necessarily need to. But with misinformation becoming an increasingly insidious and dangerous issue on YouTube and beyond, a step toward more thorough fact-checking could benefit the genre, whether that involves more rigorous reporting or avoiding unsubstantiated claims. These channels are ultimately products of their platform, creating videos that are clicky, dramatic, and, at times, salacious — the type of content that YouTube incentivizes and promotes. The incentives for accuracy and reliability are less clear.

The videos provide petty gossip and smooth brain escapism; watching is as captivating as reading a tabloid. And like with tabloids, they require a certain level of skepticism from viewers and an understanding that the content isn’t going to have the same credibility as a legacy outlet. Yet despite all of their flaws, tea and drama channels bring attention to the social and financial power of influencers, a topic in which the rest of the media is just catching up.

“I know a lot of channels have a reputation as gossip blogs,” Sung says. “But a lot also make a case for why people should care about what’s going on.”

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