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Clickbait YouTube thumbnails for gun experiment videos are at center of new debate

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YouTube’s policies are unclear

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MrBeast gun MrBeast/YouTube

Search the term “stop a bullet” on YouTube. The thousands of results that populate frequently use similar thumbnails: one person holding a gun, standing in front of a series of objects, with another person at the other end facing the barrel.

None of the videos themselves actually feature someone standing in front of a gun. It’s a perfect example of clickbait thumbnails on YouTube, an epidemic that creators and critics have talked about to death already. Instead, these videos feature creators like MrBeast or David Vlas shooting weapons at a number of objects to determine whether something can stop a bullet from exiting on the other side. YouTube doesn’t prohibit this type of content, but people are beginning to ask whether these types of thumbnails should exist.

MrBeast gun
MrBeast shooting through a series of condoms.
MrBeast/YouTube

One video editor argued on Reddit that although the content itself isn’t promoting dangerous pranks, the thumbnail can be interpreted that way. This is a serious concern, as more stories about YouTube creators participating in fatal or dangerous acts for views, or to hop on a particular trend, are emerging.

A widely-reported story from last year is an example most critics use when arguing against YouTube’s dangerous prank or stunt culture. YouTube creators Monalisa Perez and her boyfriend, Pedro Ruiz III, set up the camera ready to record one of their most “dangerous stunts ever,” according to an earlier tweet from Perez. Ruiz was going to stand in front of a gun with a book in front of his chest to see if it would stop the bullet. It didn’t. Up until the fatal incident, Ruiz’s channel was mostly harmless. He, Perez and their daughter, Aaliyah, participated in family vlogging, capturing their day-to-day life. It wasn’t enough for Ruiz. His aunt, Claudia Ruiz, told Valley News Live, a local news channel, he wanted more views.

“He had told me about an idea and I said, don’t do it, don’t do it. Why are you going to use a gun? Why? ‘Because, we want more viewers,’” Claudia Ruiz said.

David Vlas bullet
David Vlas shooting through $140,000 to see if it will stop a bullet.
David Vlas/YouTube

More details have come out since then, including the original video in which Perez can be heard pleading with Ruiz to call off the prank entirely. Perez was sentenced to six months in prison for second-degree manslaughter. While it’s the most eye-grabbing story in recent years, this isn’t an isolated incident. In March 2015, Miguel Martinez stood in front of his friend Elijah Lambert in a Sacramento park wearing a bulletproof vest. Lambert fired a .22-caliber handgun at his friend. The vest didn’t stop the bullet. Lambert was charged with the murder of his friend for an act, the judge described as “incredibly reckless behavior.”

Lambert and Martinez’s stunt was inspired by an unspecified internet video of a similar attempt to stop a bullet with a ballistic vest, according to investigators.

Most of these videos are filed as pranks, a genre on YouTube known for its often dangerous or ill-advised antics. YouTuber GradeAUnderA published a video in 2015 highlighting the issues within the prank community, arguing that as long as its labeled a “prank,” people think they can behave recklessly.

“You can basically make videos doing whatever the fuck you want,” GradeAUnderA said. “Racism, sexual harassment, murder, anything you fucking want. There are tons of ways you can think of on how to piss people off. Just call it a social experiment.”

MrBeast gun
MrBeast shooting through paper packs to see if they’ll stop a bullet.
MrBeast/YouTube

These videos work. MrBeast’s “stop a bullet” videos draw in millions of viewers, and that does incentivize people to want to recreate it. The major difference is that MrBeast isn’t actually shooting a gun at someone. He’s out in an isolated area. It appears relatively safe — even if the thumbnail suggests it’s far more dangerous than the reality of the situation.

“Not once in the video did they point a gun at one another and MrBeast prides himself in memeing around and making fun of traditional clickbait material (title name and thumbnail),” one person wrote on Reddit. “He will even say stuff in the video like ‘this will be perfect for clickbait’ or insert phrase meming on YouTube creators.

That hasn’t stopped the discussion, though.

“It encourages people to do more stunts with guns for views and ends in deaths as we have seen in recent news with the kids trying to stop a desert eagle shot with a book,” one gaming YouTuber said.

TotallyRad! Gun
A video from the TotallyRad! channel.
TotallyRad!/YouTube

YouTube’s policies don’t address dangerous thumbnails specifically. There aren’t any rules for dangerous thumbnails specifically. YouTube’s rules concerning violent content state:

While it might not seem fair to say you can’t show something because of what viewers might do in response, we draw the line at content that intends to incite violence or encourage dangerous or illegal activities that have an inherent risk of serious physical harm or death.

And its guidelines concerning thumbnails state:

Please select the thumbnail that best represents your content. Selecting a sexually provocative thumbnail may result in the removal of your thumbnail or the age-restriction of your video. The thumbnail is the title card that will be shown next to your video across the site and should be appropriate for all ages.

People could argue videos with people standing on the other end of guns isn’t “appropriate for all ages.” Many of the videos we came across were not age-gated. MrBeast’s and David Vlas’ videos, however, can also be construed as scientific experiments and uploaded for educational purposes, which YouTube does allow. Whether the videos are pranks or scientific experiments is also crucial to understanding whether YouTube does allow certain thumbnails to appear.

Again, the question isn’t whether the video’s content should be prohibited; there’s nothing rule breaking about what MrBeast, Vlas and others are doing. The question is whether or not thumbnails like the ones above should be allowed considering young viewers do scroll past them while browsing YouTube.

Polygon has reached out to YouTube for comment.