‘Trash streaming’ is a disturbing YouTube subculture where streamers get paid to broadcast abuse – Screen Shot
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‘Trash streaming’ is a disturbing YouTube subculture where streamers get paid to broadcast abuse

“Broadcast Yourself,” urges YouTube’s official slogan as 500 hours worth of content is being uploaded to the platform this very minute as we speak. Encouraging users to share parts of their lives with others, the slogan highlights broadcasting’s potential for creators to amass a loyal fanbase en route to mainstream success. But what happens when a group of live streamers—due to low viewership and donations in gaming streams—decide to switch up their content and foster a murky online subculture altogether? Introducing ‘trash streaming’, a growing trend among Russian streamers that pushes legal boundaries in order to stand out on various platforms.

What is trash streaming and why is it a concerning trend?

The idea behind trash streaming is ‘fiendishly’ simple: invite a few friends over, get drunk, start a live broadcast and ask viewers to donate in exchange for carrying out the dares they suggest. This may sound like a rough-yet-explicit sketch of most live streams out there, but what really drives trash streams into a subject of concern is the type of dares suggested and carried out.

Featuring a group of alcohol-induced streamers, trash streams are usually set up by an individual who hosts what are known as “trash parties.” Inviting other participants to engage in dares, the group ultimately split the earnings among themselves after a trash stream. Bidding as much as 15,000 Russian rubles ($205) per dare, these streamers are often suggested to engage in bare-knuckle brawls with others, rotten eggs fights, extinguishing cigarettes on their bodies and jumping from third-floor balconies for viewers to witness. It doesn’t stop there. Over the past year, trash streamers have undergone a concerning shift into a list of verbal and sexual assault cases.

During a trash stream in October 2020, blogger Andrei Burim (popularly known as Mellstroy) invited a group of women to a party in Moscow and offered to split the revenue gathered in exchange for collaborative dares. During the broadcast, however, Burim repeatedly slammed a 21-year-old model’s head against a table. As of today, the blogger is awaiting a trial for assault. Although YouTube blocked his main channel, where he had amassed a following of 500,000, Burim now streams via his backup channels while publishing exclusive content on Telegram.

Another case involves Ivan Pozharnikov, a thrash streamer famous for mocking homeless people in exchange for donations from viewers. With more than 700,000 views on his YouTube channel, the streamer admits to filming such videos with the aim of “re-educating the homeless.” One of his victims is a 32-year-old Yaroslavl native, Valentin Ganichev, who allegedly takes part in various trash streams where he is pelted with eggs, doused in cold water and even buried alive—all in exchange for a meal and a roof over his head. On most streams, Ganichev is either drunk or out of his mind on drugs while pleading for help during the dares. This led many viewers to believe he was being forced into participation. Following an official police investigation, however, Ganichev admitted to being a volunteer for trash streams.

One of the most shocking incidents in the subculture involves trash streamer Stanislav Reshetnyak, popularly known as Reeflay in the community. In December 2020, Reeflay locked his pregnant girlfriend, Valentina Grigoryeva, out on the balcony of his apartment in sub-zero temperatures. Dressed only in her underwear, Grigoryeva quickly succumbed to hypothermia as the streamer then proceeded to drag her body into the apartment and call for an ambulance. The entire event—from being paid $1,000 by a viewer to inflict abuse on his girlfriend to the police arriving in his apartment and declaring Grigoryeva dead—was broadcasted live on his YouTube channel. The trash streamer is currently sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter.

The controversial appeal backing viewers

According to Slangit, trash streaming started out as an online trend in the mid-2010s on streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Considered as a “marginal spin-off from the world of video game broadcasts,” trash streamers majorly consist of gamers who have migrated to the uncensored eco-system of YouTube following their permanent bans on Twitch. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have further propelled viewers towards trash streams as a form of entertainment in itself. The demand, in this case, is born out of an amalgamation between lonely viewers and ‘streamer boredom’—both seeking a sense of community.

So, what is the appeal for such streams among its audience exactly? Imagine commenting under a live stream of your favourite celebrity. Now imagine them noticing your comment and reading it out loud and live on-air. Trash streams essentially build on this interactiontaking it to a level where they are even ready to break laws to fulfill the challenges assigned by you.

“I was attracted by its real emotions,” said Anton, a 25-year-old security guard. In an interview with Russia Beyond, he admitted to falling down the rabbit hole during a work shift “out of sheer boredom,” “You can watch it endlessly, it’s just like real life.” For 19-year-old Nikita, trash streams are a hangout where streamers are very likely to listen and respond to whatever he has to say. According to a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Polina, trash streams used to be funnier despite their bad taste. She highlighted how “there were lots of funny jokes about the death of a participant’s mother” where viewers sent in donations with comments saying that it was his mother communicating to the streamer from the other world.

While Polina cracked up after recounting this incident, Anton was quick to break down in sobs. “They should all be locked up except for Valentin Ganichev (the 32-year-old homeless volunteer for trash streams mentioned above), who’s mentally ill. It’s nothing but sadism in the highest degree,” he added in the interview. Another fan of trash streams, nicknamed ‘xbpm_music’, claimed that the broadcasts have helped him “pine less” for his homeland. “It’s fun for me to see typical Russian idiots,” he said. “Sometimes I look at them and think: ‘Damn, I really need to do something good, otherwise I’ll become like them.’ Motivation or what?” he philosophised.

“Getting pleasure from watching violence is a mental disorder,” said Alena, a practising psychologist, in the interview with Russia Beyond. In her opinion, trash streamers satisfy both their own need for savagery and that of their audience. The psychologist equated an average viewer to an armchair boxer “who would probably beat his wife but knows that she would go to the police.” She also explained how the audience often includes those who have been previous victims of assault and humiliation themselves. “Understanding that ‘I’m not the only one with a grievance’ helps many to crawl out of the pit of despair,” the psychologist added.

Another psychologist, Lyubov Kalinovskaya, highlighted how viewers are the main participants in trash streams since they ultimately control the actions carried out by streamers. This, in turn, pushes viewers down a lane where they vicariously realise and re-evaluate their own ambitions. “For many, trash streams are unique because they guarantee reality and no one ever knows how it will end. That creates a thrill for the viewer like ancient Romans enjoyed deciding the fate of a defeated gladiator,” said Kalinovskaya.

On the other side of this equation, the appeal backing streamers essentially lies in trash streaming being considered as “a form of voyeurism thousands are happy to pay for.” In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Vasilyenko, an ex-porn actor and reality TV show contestant admitted to launching his trash stream network in January 2020 to “capitalise on the interest in his persona.” When Russia went into lockdown in April, Vasilyenko left his job and began streaming full-time, playing video games during the day and inviting friends for alcohol-fueled dares at night. “It was easy money,” he said. Streaming under the name ‘German Yagodka’, Vasilyenko makes 8,000 rubles ($109) per day on YouTube—worth half of a cashier’s monthly wage—despite having a mere 4,500 subscribers. In essence, the trash streamer admitted to being paid to have fun with friends without having to venture out.

The rise of trash streaming can also be traced back to the competition on various streaming platforms. “The competition is fierce—you have to do something radical to stand out,” said Konstantin Gabov, a sociologist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, to Radio Free Europe. “And in Russia, perhaps due to a low quality of life, people are ready to do it and others are ready to pay for it.”

“Banning trash streaming is like trying to ban fake news”

Multiple accounts of deaths and violent assaults ensuing trash streams have prompted the government to crack down on the trend altogether. On 16 December 2020, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament proposed a ban on trash streams. An active part of Russia’s wider turn towards internet censorship, the ban also mandates punishment of up to six years for those who violate the same.

Given how the authorities previously failed to ban the controversial messaging app Telegram from the country, however, experts—as well as the streamers themselves—believe that the initiative is doomed. The list of reasons also includes the vagueness of the trend in terms of defining it legally. “Banning trash is like trying to ban fake news,” said German Klimenko, a digital entrepreneur and former adviser to Putin, in an interview with Rappler. “No one can even agree on a definition of what this stuff really is.”

While YouTube and Twitch constantly cracks down on such content, some live streams manage to evade restrictions. Even if their channels end up getting blocked on these platforms, trash streamers often operate using alternate, backup channels to circumvent the ban. They also upload exclusive content to Telegram and other file hosting services. “The only way to ban trash streaming would be to convert Russia’s internet into something more like Cuba’s or North Korea’s,” Klimenko concluded.

Although all efforts have the potential of ending up in vain, the Russian government is committed to cleansing the internet of trash streams with various legislations. According to The Sun, the government is currently considering forcing live streamers to register as individual entrepreneurs—making them pay taxes on donations and allowing the police to track them.

Trash streams essentially incentivises the boundaries of what’s considered legal and safe. Every time a trash stream is cut off from mainstream viewing, it only prompts two others to pop up on alternate platforms. It also makes one wonder about the lengths the trend would go to before it ultimately dies down. “It probably won’t be long before we see a professional studio production, shot from a first-person perspective, allowing the viewer to ‘try on’ the role of the murderer or victim, not just be a watcher,” a psychologist shared in the interview with Russia Beyond.

The fact that more than 2,000 hours worth of content has already been uploaded to YouTube while you read this article doesn’t seem to help this case either. Because no matter how wild the content is, it will always find an audience.

BestGore and TheYNC: should shock websites be censored?

On 18 December, 2019, Netflix released a three-episode show called Don’t F**** With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer, opening a gruesome Pandora’s box most people had forgotten about. The show follows the story of Luka Magnotta, a former adult entertainer turned sadistic cat-torturer, turned—eventually—killer. What the documentary also did, in hindsight, is shed light back on bestgore.com, the most popular, and arguably the most disturbing shock website, and the moral and legal controversies behind its existence.

1 Lunatic 1 Icepick

In 2013, a video called 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick was published on bestgore.com showing Magnotta brutally murdering Lin Jun, an engineering student from China who had moved to Montreal, Canada, for his studies. After dismembering his body, Magnotta sent several of Jun’s body parts to Canadian political parties among other recipients. The video is a 10-minute unbearable sequence of images, which was described by Mark Marek, Best Gore’s founder, as “without a doubt the sickest thing you will have ever seen in your entire life,” on the video’s caption.

Shortly after posting the video, Magnotta was trialled and found guilty of first-degree murder in 2014, while Mark Marek was accused by the Canadian authorities of “corrupting morals,” based on a law from 1949 which states that anyone who “makes, prints, publishes, distributes, circulates, or has in his possession for the purpose of publication, distribution or circulation any obscene written matter, picture, model, phonograph record or other thing whatever” might risk going to jail. According to the law, the word ‘obscenity’ is used to describe any materials mixed with violence, sex, and degradation, as reported by Adrienne Jeffries in an article published by The Verge. In it, Jeffries questions the responsibility of Marek within this story, asking whether is it correct that he faced jail for posting a video of the murder.

Should the shock websites Best Gore and The YNC be censored?

Despite the sickening violence depicted on 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick, when you scroll through Best Gore, Magnotta’s video is in good company. The Canadian website features some of the most graphic violence that occurs on earth, all made by human hands. Among its different categories, users can find gang executions, ISIS beheadings, car accidents and videos depicting cases of police brutality from all over the world. With an average of 200,000 pageviews a day, the demand for this type of content is high, to say the least.

Shock, or gore, websites started appearing in 1996, when rotten.com was founded. Rotten started the ‘trend’ by mostly featuring still images of car accidents and medical conditions but it was in the early 2000s that ogrish.com paved the way for a category of its own. These types of websites are technically legal and are still live online, like the famous theYNC and goregrish, both available on theync.com and goregrish.com. In the US, all websites are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), meaning that if you publish user-generated content, you’re not responsible for what it portrays.

The circulation of violent content online is part of an ongoing debate that repeatedly puts at stake the internet’s freedom, but what is the price users are willing to pay to keep the internet a free—and to some extent unregulated—space? Despite the voyeuristic and sadistic purposes that most likely hide behind most of Best Gore’s users, the idea behind Best Gore and Marek’s manifesto lies on a (relatively) reasonable basis.

Among the website’s several statements on freedom of speech on the internet and the threat of online censorship, Marek writes, “Harm to freedom of expression caused by censorship of content just because some may deem it blasphemous, obscene or morally-corrupting would be devastating and should be of utmost concern to all people of conscience. […] And this is where Best Gore steps in, as the website has played a pivotal role in exposing lies which were declared as official truths by the mainstream media, exposed countless cases of police brutality, governments sanctioned terrorism, war profiteering, fear mongering and other unsavory activities which enslave the people in injustice.”

The issue with online toxicity is that we don’t seem to be able to pinpoint whether what we see online influences real-life actions or vice versa. If this violence exists in real life, is there a point in censoring its representation online? The internet entailed a moral and ethical compromise since day one, and it’s with websites such as Best Gore that we are reminded of how severe this paradox can get. Whether we can handle it is up to you and me.