Despite rumours, there's no evidence of a paedophile ring on YouTube
The allegations are shocking - a paedophile ring openly operating on YouTube. But the reality, as BBC Trending found, is much more complicated.
The rumours first started to surface a few weeks ago on Reddit and other message boards. Several users claimed to have found evidence of a group of paedophiles exchanging explicit material via YouTube.
It wasn't long before the claims reached the radar of several video bloggers. One, who goes by the name Reallygraceful, was visibly upset in a post she made on the subject.
"A paedophile ring exists on YouTube," she says. "And instead of everybody sitting on their keyboards and doing nothing… let's actually do something about it."
Reallygraceful has about 30,000 followers on her channel, and other YouTube personalities, some with much larger followings, joined in the hunt.
The allegations centred on a number of videos whose titles began "Webcam video from…", usually followed by a date.
The videos, according to several who've seen them, do show young children - but they are not sexual in nature. The children are often emulating their favourite YouTubers, dancing, miming makeup tutorials, or doing nothing much at all.
What has alarmed users are the comments beneath the videos, which are often very explicit.
The videos are usually self-shot and the pages usually contain very little associated description other than the title. Many were posted years ago.
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So who posted them and why? And, as is being claimed by the vloggers, is there any evidence of a larger paedophile network behind them?
The first clue is the titles. "Webcam video from…" is a default title used by some webcam manufacturers and indicates that the person who uploaded them didn't bother to change the title or didn't really realise what they were doing.
One YouTuber who has looked into the claims and studied the videos says all indications point to the conclusion that the clips were unwittingly uploaded by the children themselves, who may or may not be aware of the explicit comments underneath.
The amateur investigator, who goes by the name Reign Bot, runs a YouTube channel devoted to debunking rumours and investigating the dark corners of the internet. She says some of the claims made by other YouTubers have been overblown and that the description of a "ring" is not strictly accurate.
"People weren't claiming there were some shady individuals, but an entire ring of people working together to take advantage of children," she says. "They were using 'paedophile ring' as more of a headline or buzz word in this case.
"Yes, such things do exist in the world, but this situation does not actually fit that criteria," she says.
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Reign Bot says that the comments posted were disgusting and should be deleted, but says that some amateur investigators, who posted on YouTube, Reddit and elsewhere, jumped to conclusions about vast networks which were unsupported by evidence.
"I can see where these people are coming from, but the hysteria generated by this whole thing did nothing for their cause, and also fuelled misinformation."
Although the videos recently garnered attention, the fact that particular search terms could easily bring up videos of children has been the subject of a variety of comments on the extreme free speech message board 4chan for several years.
Reallygraceful and some of the other internet users hunting the video commentators were also promoters of the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory - an invented allegation that a paedophile ring which included Democratic Party officials was centred on a Washington pizza restaurant.
Those discredited rumours began life as a politically motivated plot by Donald Trump supporters on 4chan, Reddit and other message boards. They culminated in an armed man travelling to the Washington DC pizza restaurant that was the target of the rumours and firing shots as diners fled.
The "pizzagate" rumours spiralled out of control as users of social networks projected hidden paedophile "signals" onto publicly available photos and other material.
By contrast the YouTubers looking at these clips of children found actual examples of explicit messages, if no actual images of abuse.
In an email exchange with BBC Trending, Reallygraceful - Grace Elizabeth is her real name - says she saw a disturbing degree of intent by those viewing and commenting on the videos. In some cases, she says, the videos had been copied to different accounts and put on lists of similar clips.
"These videos were time-stamped in the description to reflect what points of the video a child's underwear was showing or their bare chests were exposed," she says.
Elizabeth also examined profiles of those commenting and aggregating the videos, which led to links to pro-paedophilia organisations. She walked back from comments in her original YouTube post linking the videos to "pizzagate," but linked the YouTube videos to other child sexual assault allegations.
"Many individuals are awakening to the reality that's been hiding in plain sight," she says.
Since the rumours began to get mainstream attention, many of the "webcam video from…" videos and comments have been taken down, presumably by YouTube itself, a move that Elizabeth called "fantastic," although she urged the network to do more.
Advice on child safety and the internet
YouTube did not directly answer questions about the videos, but in a statement said it has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual content involving minors, and that anything that sexualises children, including comments, will result in an account shutdown.
But like on other social networks, the amount of material available on YouTube is so vast that the Google subsidiary relies on users to flag illegal or inappropriate content.
"People have made this whole situation about banning content on YouTube, but I think the actual message here goes out to the individuals uploading the content," says Reign Bot, the internet investigator. "This should be a lesson to parents to monitor what their kids do online."
That sentiment was backed up by the UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which has a website called Share Aware offering advice on children and use of the internet and social media.
"Parents can help by having regular conversations with their child about using privacy settings so that they decide who sees their posts and don't end up in a situation where they feel out of control," a spokesperson said.
"Sadly, there are some people who will mine the web for videos of young people and exploit it for their own devious uses."
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