The YouTube unpersoning of Russell Brand
This week, the Times of London and Channel 4 issued a scathing expose about actor and comedian-turned-podcaster Russell Brand. Brand began his career as a comedian and MTV host; in 2004, he joined “Big Brother’s Big Mouth” on Channel 4, and then transitioned into acting and voice-overs. In 2013, he went political; by 2020, he had launched a successful podcast, taking heterodox positions on matters ranging from COVID-19 to the Ukraine war.
Over the course of this time, Brand also changed his personal behavior. He was a drug abuser in the early 2000s; by 2003, he was a self-declared sex addict; today, he is married with two young children.
The Times and Channel 4 report concerns behavior during the period 2006-2013. Those allegations come from five women, four of them anonymous, who accuse Brand of behavior ranging from emotional abuse to sexual assault and rape. Metropolitan Police have urged any victims to come forward. Brand denies all of the allegations.
Full disclosure: I’ve interviewed Russell and been interviewed by him at length. I consider him a friend. You can never truly know another person well enough to rule out vile, despicable, criminal behavior in their past; I didn’t know Russell during his most debauched period, and I assume that if I had, we wouldn’t have gotten along. And the allegations, as Brand himself says, are incredibly serious. Presumably we will find out all the facts as time goes on.
There is a question worth asking here, aside from the obvious question about Brand’s alleged crimes: What prompted the media to begin digging into Brand? It was an open secret in Hollywood that Brand was a sexual degenerate throughout the 2000s; the media were utterly unconcerned about such matters. In fact, the same media outlets now investigating Brand were happy to make money off of him as he engaged in overtly vile behavior he himself would now be ashamed of.
So what changed? Brand did. He began taking political positions that contradicted many of the most cherished assumptions of the media class. He spoke out on a variety of issues that were considered taboo. He abandoned his past embrace of debauchery and began promoting more honorable personal behavior.
This prompted an investigation that, if the allegations are true, should have happened more than a decade ago. That investigation has now been utilized as a predicate to unperson Brand before he even responds to the allegations in full. He has not been arrested and charged, let alone convicted of a crime. Yet YouTube announced on Tuesday that it would cancel all monetization of Brand’s videos on the site, preventing Brand from earning an income from any content posted on YouTube. “This decision applies to all channels that may be owned or operated by Russell Brand,” the social media service explained.
Allegations can now be utilized to erase unpleasant people from social media — presumably because of what they have done in the past, but really, because of what they say now. There are reams of allegations about a bevy of YouTube creators. But those who are demonetized seem to be of one political type.
This is dangerous stuff, no matter what emerges about Brand. If he’s guilty, he will pay for his crimes. But the preemptive destruction of his career makes for a truly ugly incentive structure. And it is now just one more reason for those who do have heterodox opinions to avoid speaking up.