On YouTube Friday morning, several hundred viewers watched a live, animated video of a female Minecraft avatar with bare breasts opening a present full of the poop emoji. In the video’s thumbnail, two inflated breasts held up a poop Minecraft brick.
It’s one of several disturbing and grotesque animated Minecraft videos identified by WIRED featured under YouTube’s Minecraft Topic page, a content-sorting feature introduced in 2019. Similar Minecraft-style thumbnails found there include an avatar with heart eyes and a bloody knife smiling at a chained-up woman in a bikini, a mother and father holding sticks up to a crying toddler, and a woman pregnant with feces about to sit on a man. The live videos loop for hours on end, some racking up tens of thousands of total views. Some of these channels receive tens of thousands of views a day.
In 2017, in an incident later referred to as Elsagate, journalists discovered hundreds of graphically sexual or violent YouTube videos masquerading as “child-friendly” on the platform’s supposedly age-appropriate YouTube Kids app. These videos, which depicted child abuse, murder, and other R-rated content, often featured popular children’s TV characters like Peppa Pig or Frozen’s Elsa, or hid under innocuous titles, which apparently helped them fly under the radar of YouTube’s algorithms. They were also created by independent animators. In response, YouTube deleted over 150,000 videos and removed ads on 2 million.
YouTube’s Elsagate purge challenged some of the obvious ways unscrupulous content creators targeted kids, one of YouTube’s biggest audiences. But since 2017, YouTube has added several new discoverability features: topics, hashtag pages, and video game directories. And while it’s not quite as easy to find compromising videos of Peppa Pig on YouTube right now, a WIRED investigation has unearthed dozens of opportunistic channels targeting Minecraft and Among Us fans.
While the videos in question did not seem to be present on the YouTube Kids app, over half of the most-viewed videos on YouTube proper are marketed to children. Nursery rhymes and educational videos entertain and soothe children whose parents need a break. And parents play them over and over again, often racking up millions of views. A lot of child-targeted videos are manufactured by official channels that own the IP rights to kids’ favorite characters; others are low-budget animations by third parties cashing in on kids’ insatiable love for streaming distractions.
Minecraft is the most popular game on YouTube, and at any given time, tens of thousands of people—many of them children—are watching live Minecraft content there. Clicking on Minecraft under YouTube’s gaming homepage brings users to Minecraft’s Topics page, which YouTube generates based on concurrent viewers by default. On Monday, the first thumbnail under that section depicted a drooling, heart-eyed police officer and a large-breasted avatar with pink panties cast to the side. Six thousand people were watching live. Like other Minecraft grotesqueries, the thumbnail is the most shocking thing about it; innuendo and violence are only minorly featured in the animation.
YouTube splits the Topics page into five sections: Live, Recommended, Recent, Popular, and Official. For the most part, those last four contain Minecraft animations, highlights, and tutorials. Inappropriate thumbnails are scattered across them, especially if a user watches or searches for them; however, the highest concentration is under the Live section, which appears first. On Friday, Minecraft’s Live section included the video of the Minecraft poop. Scrolling a little to the right, there was a video thumbnail of a hand holding a bloody knife up to a woman in a bikini.
It is possible to game hundreds and thousands of views from YouTube’s Live sections, which feature prominently in searches. In 2020, a WIRED investigation revealed that YouTube Gaming’s Live section was dominated by scams, which regularly racked up thousands of concurrent viewers. Videos advertising Grand Theft Auto V cheats would link to sketchy sites, including ones that appeared to vacuum users’ credentials. It’s unclear how many of the views that push the offending Minecraft videos to the top of the Topics page—and in front of unsuspecting viewers—are legitimate.