The end of March marked the downfall of the internet’s goofy “golden retriever” and Tesla-gifter David Dobrik. While long-awaited and satisfying to many, this was catastrophic to a particular few. However, before getting into the mess of grave allegations against the internet celebrity, I have to set the scene.
It’s the fall of 2016. You spent all summer playing “Pokemon GO” and watching the first season of “Stranger Things.” Now, school is kicking back into gear, and there’s a presidential election in the near future. Too many things are happening in the world. Topping it all off, it is announced in October that the short-form video app Vine would be wiped from the internet.
As the cultural phenomenon came to its end, then 20-year-old David Dobrik brought himself and his closest friends from the app over to YouTube. Soon enough, generation-wide “Vine nostalgia” set in, and former stars who made the switch to YouTube surged in popularity. There was a sort of Vine “afterlife” attributed to Dobrik’s vlogs — you didn’t have to say goodbye to your favorite comedians, you just had to watch them on a different platform. Before long, Dobrik had curated “The Vlog Squad,” whose longest-lasting members include former Vine stars Scotty Sire, Zane Hijazi, Heath Hussar, Jason Nash, Dom Zeglaitis and Todd Smith.
During its wildly successful run, Dobrik’s “Vlog Squad” scored sponsorship deals with SeatGeek, HBO Max, EA Sports and more. As of today, Dobrik’s personal YouTube channel has amassed 18.5 million subscribers. Dobrik also co-hosted the 2019 Teen Choice Awards and was named “Sexiest Heartthrob of 2019” by People magazine. Worst of all, Dobrik was dubbed “Gen Z’s Jimmy Fallon” by The Wall Street Journal — personally, I still haven’t unpacked the implications of this comment.
The essence of Dobrik’s ground-breaking, revolutionary material can be distilled from any of his videos. Take, for example, the vlog titled “I MARRIED MY BEST FRIEND’S MOM!! (PROPOSAL),” in which Dobrik elopes with his best friend’s mother as a joke (could you have guessed that?). The video begins with Dobrik teasing his future son-in-law Jason Nash for being a divorced parent — Nash, who is 23 years older than Dobrik, fires back by telling Dobrik, “no one will marry you, ever.” These would be Nash’s famous last words.
Like a mature, level-headed adult, Dobrik flies to Boston, proposes to Nash’s mother Lorraine and takes her to Vegas to officially marry her, legal papers and all. Next comes a private jet to Hawaii and a haphazard adventure of a honeymoon before the newlyweds return to Los Angeles. Dobrik breaks the news to his housemates back home and receives an enthusiastic response — even Nash himself jokingly welcomes Dobrik to the family.
The vlog has accumulated almost 14 million views, but the marriage gag is almost inconsequential within Dobrik’s oeuvre. Between celebrity cameos, expensive pranks, partying, fighting and other outrageous antics, his channel has almost six billion video views.
What distinguishes Dobrik from the Jake Pauls of the internet is his lively ensemble of characters; per Dobrik’s editing choices, each member subscribes to a sort of caricature of their person. The vlogs are more than just a diary of a day — they are instead a smartly crafted sequence of setups and punchlines (often targeting a member of the Vlog Squad), with increasingly dangerous stunts scattered throughout. Because of this, they’re addicting: In each four-minute-and-20-second video there is never a pause in the action.
There may be endless content, but it’s up to the members of the Vlog Squad to decide whether they want to participate in the vlogs or not. There’s a heavy implication that if they don’t want to be the subject of Dobrik’s antics they shouldn’t give him the “okay.” So, how does Dobrik persuade his friends to be buried alive, get bitten by a snake or drink their own urine on camera?
Dobrik’s power of persuasion comes in the form of authority by virality: His 18.5 million subscribers make him the most famous and most influential person in the room. In a video on his own channel, Nash describes how, despite tight schedules, “David will never let the night end. It’s pretty funny, he can basically convince anyone to do anything.”
Take one of Dobrik’s non-Vine friends Nick “Jonah” Antonyan, who was popularized after Dobrik compared him to actor Jonah Hill. Since then, Antonyan has been constantly mocked on camera for his weight and singled out as the “ugly” one of the group. Like a true friend would, in a since-deleted video, Dobrik even had Antonyan shave all of his body hair and cover himself in peanut butter to recreate “peanut butter baby,” a years-old meme from Vine.
From the outside looking in, Dobrik is manipulating his friends with his authority — exposure to Dobrik’s audience drives up their own numbers, thus raising their independent successes. People are more inclined to agree to something when they get something in return, but when the pranks go too far, is it worth the risk?
In February, former Vlog Squad member Seth Francois disclosed to Insider his reasons for leaving the Vlog Squad and the debilitating trauma that Dobrik caused him. In a since-removed vlog from June 2017, Dobrik convinces a blindfolded Francois that Corinna Kopf, a model and influencer, will kiss him. As part of the prank, Kopf is switched out with 43-year-old Nash, and the gag continues as planned. For context, the punchline was that “a straight guy kisses another guy.” The implicitly homophobic joke that Dobrik found funny was not indeed a joke; on an episode of Ethan and Hila Klein’s “H3 Podcast,” Francois describes this experience as sexual assault.
Francois told Insider: “It’s kind of crazy to think about someone who is an adult, like a grown adult, who has a lot of understanding about what’s wrong and what’s right, to just be in a situation and agree to do that. It just says something about who you are and what you think you can get away with.”
What exactly can David Dobrik get away with? Dobrik’s (mostly) 20-something-year-old friends aren’t going to reprimand him for any vlog-related misconduct — not as long as he is directly in charge of their appearance in the vlogs. With nothing in his way, Dobrik spent years thinking his behavior was okay, or at least blocking it from his guilty conscience.
There is also the faint hope of a reward; if you put up with Dobrik for long enough, he might give you a brand new Tesla. Dobrik has given out so many luxury cars, both to members of his inner circle and unsuspecting fans, that a lot of his mischief is overshadowed by his generosity. If the same person who encourages toxicity among the Vlog Squad gifts you a car, how much harder would it be to leave?
Further suspicions of Dobrik’s abuse were confirmed in a Business Insider article published March 16, 2021, in which a woman featured in a now-deleted 2018 vlog titled “SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE PLAYED WITH FIRE!!” comes forward with sexual assault allegations against member Dom Zeglaitis, better known as Durte Dom. As for Dobrik’s involvement, he solicited alcohol in addition to being complicit in Zeglaitis’s abuse. YouTuber Trisha Paytas, who is Jason Nash’s ex-partner, claims that Dobrik had an older member (presumably Nash) purchase alcohol for the survivors, since Dobrik and the women were under 21 at the time.
In Dobrik’s prompt two-minute and 30-second apology, he brushes off “conversations” circulating on the internet, claiming that “consent is something that’s super, super important to me.” He vaguely accepts the blame, spreading a blanket of some retroactive apology over any video that may be perceived as problematic. Dobrik also alleges that he doesn’t stand for any misconduct, hence Zeglaitis’s subsequent removal from the Vlog Squad.
By ever having involved himself with Zeglaitis, Dobrik has been complicit in long-standing abuse. Dobrik has also fostered an environment that rewards abusive behavior. A hasty acknowledgment of the misconduct wasn’t enough, nor would it ever be. In the following days, Dobrik lost his sponsorship deals with Dollar Shave Club, EA Sports, HelloFresh, DoorDash, Audible, HBO Max, General Mills, Chipotle, Bumble and SeatGeek.
The power that Dobrik had at his peak is troubling — the ability for one guy in his early twenties to persuade human adults to help him manipulate and abuse other people reminds us that just because somebody is popular does not mean they cannot be toxic out in the open. Even more troubling is the nonchalant attitude with which Dobrik approaches topics of sexual assault and violence when they pertain to him and the Vlog Squad.
After a long five years, it looks like The Vlog Squad will finally disband — if not, it certainly won’t return with full force. In addition to losing sponsorships, Dobrik’s channel has also been demonetized by YouTube. His income is reduced, if not stripped away. He is blackballed from his own platform. As for the rest of Dobrik’s career, I’m not sure there’s much to say.
Once he loses his million-dollar house, his friends and his fans, maybe Dobrik will have a few Teslas left over.
Daily Arts Writer Laine Brotherton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.