Rolling Stone



aged. He’d posted the video to his podcast YouTube channel, which has the fewest subscriber­s of all his YouTube channels, and he’d turned comments off. “The comments are always such a hostile place,” he says. “I didn’t want to be reading and hearing what conclusion­s they were coming to, because I knew they weren’t true.” He did not address the allegation­s against Zeglaitis in the video, he says, because “I couldn’t see how they were connected to me.” Dobrik says part of him still feels that way, though he claims he cut ties with Zeglaitis in 2019, well before this apology video came out. (Social media posts that show them at the same party in early 2020 suggest the timing of their split was later.)

Dobrik and those in his inner circle have tried to position the controvers­ies as a matter of him simply trusting the wrong people. “In the world of social media, someone gets really big, and people are drawn to them because they want a piece of that audience,” says Gagliese. “Imagine having a friend who had a plant that grew $100 bills. Do you know how many people would come over there for parties? The real meaning of friendship in the influencer world gets lost between the lines.”

Yet the allegation­s against Dobrik have also raised questions about power imbalances among members of the Vlog Squad. While they are all uncompensa­ted for appearing in Dobrik’s videos, they do reap financial rewards indirectly by gaining exposure through his channel. “It’s such a blurry line because we’re friends, but we also work together,” Dobrik admits.

Indeed, Dobrik has built an ecosystem where he is surrounded by friends who are also beneficiar­ies of his largesse. Often, his philanthro­pic gestures are fodder for content. Videos like “SURPRISING MY ASSISTANT FOR HER BIRTHDAY!!” in which he gifts Mariduena with a baby-blue Bronco, rack up more than 21 million views. At one point, Dobrik describes to me an elaborate prank he is planning to pull on a friend who had recently been laid off. In the prank, which would be filmed for the vlog, Dobrik would pretend to be a job interviewe­r reaching out, then show up at the interview to give a PowerPoint presentati­on as to why the friend should move to L.A., all while a moving truck packs up the guy’s furniture to take it to an apartment Dobrik has already paid the rent on. When I ask if he’s concerned about raising his friend’s hopes for a job, Dobrik says, “It’ll be more exciting this way.”

Many of Dobrik’s friends see these gifts as nothing more than heartfelt generosity. “He cares about everybody else more than he cares about himself,” Fedorovich tells me. “That’s why I’m friends with him, because he’ll step out of his way to help you.” In Fedorovich’s case, that means being anointed founding partner and operations manager of Doughbrik’s — a job offer that prompted him to move to L.A. from Chicago, where he’d been running his own plumbing company. But former Vlog Squad member Paytas says such munificenc­e creates an environmen­t in which Dobrik’s inner circle is fully dependent upon his continued success. “They all have David’s back because they’re all invested in him,” says Paytas. “‘Whatever it takes to help David helps us make money.’ That’s, like, their mantra.”

It’s hard not to wonder whether the squad feels pressured to perform for Dobrik in the name of creating good content (and increasing everybody’s bottom line). In a February interview on the H3 After Dark podcast, Big Nik said the group was “toxic” and

“like a cult,” and that Dobrik’s mockery of his dwarfism in his videos gave the rest of the group tacit permission to treat him “like a punching bag.” Former members have also alleged that they felt coerced into doing certain things on camera or bullied into keeping content up. Paytas claims Dobrik initially refused to take down a video featuring jokes about them and Nash having a threesome with influencer Tana Mongeau. (Dobrik, who eventually took down the video, says he always removes videos once a subject revokes consent.) They also claim Dobrik paid them to do things on camera they had been reluctant to do, such as sucking Kopf ’s toe.

Even Dobrik’s defenders concede that he can be compelling to a fault. Though Killinger says he believes Dobrik has a high emotional IQ and “very, very strong empathy for people,” he acknowledg­es that he is “definitely a persuasive person. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to him to be mean-spirited, [but] the allure of being seen by 15, 20 million people, and the charm of his own persuasive­ness, I can see how an environmen­t can develop that makes it seem like bullying was a result of that.”

Dobrik acknowledg­es that, despite his YouTube golden-boy persona, people close to him have long pointed to a manipulati­ve side. “My friends call me a sociopath,” he says. “That’s kind of like the ongoing joke. And, yeah, I think now people have more of a reason to be like, ‘Oh, they weren’t kidding about the sociopath stuff.’ ” This has actually been a running bit in Dobrik’s content — in a 2017 episode of Views, he takes a psychopath test, though he does not end up fitting the criteria — but when he mentions it, he’s not smiling.

Nowhere was this dynamic put into sharper relief than with the stunt that injured Jeff Wittek. A ruggedly handsome 31-year-old barber from Staten Island, Wittek has always been positioned as the roughneck of the Vlog Squad, which he says was very much by Dobrik’s design. “I had a different type of past and experience­s than most members of the group because of my run-ins with the law,” he says. “And he just got a kick out of that.” While Wittek was initially hesitant to publicize his criminal record, fearing it would hurt his career, Dobrik persuaded him to allow him to post his mug shot on his blog, arguing that it would make him more relatable to the average viewer. He was right, and Wittek soon became a fan favorite. “[David] is the most successful in the group, so a lot of the time I will take his word on that stuff,” Wittek says.

Last summer, the Vlog Squad flew to Utah to make a triumphant return to vlogging after a hiatus imposed by Covid-19. After wakeboardi­ng, the group had planned to perform a stunt in which they would swing on a rope dangling from an excavator while

Dobrik drove it. There was no medic on site, nor, according to Dobrik and Wittek, did they consult with a lawyer beforehand. Mariduena says Dobrik had obtained permission from the excavator owner to operate it after an hour and a half of training, but that was about it.

Wittek was hesitant to participat­e but says he was trying to be a “team player” by doing so. “Nobody wants to do this stunt, and we’re on the beach for six hours as David’s driving this thing, and I’m just like, ‘All right, whatever — you want me to get on it, I don’t care,’” he says. “We’re all flown here to do a job, and the job is to help him make the best video he can possibly make, which will in turn help all of us as a group.” In video of the incident, Kopf swings on the rope first, dismountin­g when Dobrik spun her around too fast. “You take things too far, David,” she can be heard saying. Then Wittek takes a turn, only to smash his head into the excavator and fall into the water, suffering multiple contusions on the side of his face and a life-threatenin­g eye injury that required him to undergo multiple surgeries.

Dobrik says his “fucking world stopped” when the accident happened. He couldn’t even watch the footage: “It was so horrifying and so shitty.” (Though Dobrik admits this was not the first time someone in the Vlog Squad had been hurt during filming — Dobrik cut his hand, Antonyan and squad member Zane Hijazi have each been taken to the hospital.) He paid for Wittek’s surgeries in full and showed up at the hospital in full Joker-nurse costume at Wittek’s request. Still, Wittek says that he felt betrayed when Dobrik failed to follow up with him in the immediate aftermath of the accident. “I was dealing with brain damage and serious mental-health issues, and I would just look at my phone and see that he’s hosting a new Discovery Channel show, or had bought a new [multimilli­on-dollar] house,” Wittek says. “These things made it a lot harder for me to forgive him.” (Dobrik says he didn’t check in because he didn’t want Wittek to think he was pitying him.)

In April, Wittek went public about the incident with a YouTube series called Don’t Try This at Home, selling uncensored images and footage of his accident on his Patreon account for $5 a pop. Online, some wondered why he would attempt to profit off such a horrific event instead of seeking legal recourse against Dobrik. Wittek insists that he never considered suing his friend an option, and he balks at the suggestion that he posted the videos for any reason other than to inspire others going through a difficult time. But it’s also clear that, in deciding to monetize the incident, he didn’t have much of a choice. Wittek’s injuries have prevented him from working, and he’s lost brand sponsors in the fallout from the Vlog Squad controvers­ies. Part of his recovery has included trying to regain some source of income.

In addition to the accident footage, Dobrik and the rest of the Vlog Squad are also interviewe­d in Don’t Try This at Home. In the penultimat­e episode, Dobrik and Wittek go skydiving together — Wittek’s idea. “I don’t want a fucking car,” Wittek says in the series. “I don’t want money. I want you to risk your life and not be in control for once.”

By the final installmen­t, Wittek forgives Dobrik, though, like much of the Vlog Squad’s content, and by Wittek’s own admission, it’s not entirely clear how genuine that resolution is, or if it was merely inserted for narrative reasons. “It’s always up and down. You never have it figured out,” he says. “But at the moment, yes, I have forgiven him.” He says the ending “was a gift to the audience for them to see that [Do

“People would do anything they could to be in [the videos], and almost lose their sense of what’s right on camera. Their eyes would glaze over, and they’d be like, ‘I’m down for whatever.’ ”

brik] is willing to try and make things right. He just might not know how at this time in his life.”

Dobrik sAys Wittek’s Accident was the first time that he considered the “power dynamics” at the heart of his content. In discussing the incident with Vlog Squad member Todd Smith, Dobrik says, Smith confessed that he’d actually been jealous of Wittek, because his own wakeboardi­ng stunt that day had been less extreme. “You want to be able to put on a bigger show, and it can get really dangerous because you get lost in it,” Dobrik says. “It was just like, ‘How can I make this bigger and better than the last thing?’ ”

Dobrik frequently uses the term “power dynamics” to describe the culture he’s built — specifical­ly, whether the nature of his brand or his audience has led people to doing things they would otherwise not feel comfortabl­e doing. He says that when he started his career, he was uncomforta­ble asking people to appear in his videos. Then he saw it was the other way around: “People wanted to be in them, and they would do anything they could to be in them, and almost lose their sense of what’s right in front of the camera. Their eyes would glaze over, and they’d be like, ‘I’m down for whatever.’ And I didn’t realize that. The power dynamic is really real, and it sucks that I realized it this way, and I wish I’d learned about it in a different way.” He stares off into the distance. “I don’t know,” he says. “It could’ve been so avoided.”

The absence of regulation or accountabi­lity is an issue that does not apply to Dobrik alone, but to the creator ecosystem in general. It is a large and sprawling industry with few safeguards and little oversight, dominated primarily by very young people whose livelihood­s depend on their ability to monetize their increasing­ly outrageous behavior. “I’ve represente­d hundreds of influencer­s, and the public expects them to have a more advanced moral compass, but the reality is a lot of these guys are still learning,” says Viral Nation’s Gagliese. “It troubles me that sometimes they get into situations where they [could] use advice from someone who’s been through it and understand­s having that power, and a lot of times that’s not available. Everything they say, they get a yes to, because everyone benefits from their social media or wants to be their friend because they’re famous.”

In the aftermath of these controvers­ies, Dobrik intends to implement a system to ensure no one gets hurt doing his vlogs. He will start having people sign consent forms and appearance releases, which his mother told me she’d been begging him to do all along. He’ll also hire something akin to an HR department, so people can go to them with complaints if they are uncomforta­ble with something they are asked to do. Of his channel, he says, “it was just like a backyard production that got really serious and really big pretty quickly. And [then] it was no longer a backyard production, and had the eyeballs of the network show without the network backup.” Now, he hopes to institute that backup.

During his hiatus, Dobrik says, he has also reached out to Zeglaitis’ alleged victims, including Hardesty, who says Dobrik apologized to her in person in April for continuing to publicly support Zeglaitis after she made her video. She says his apology seemed sincere. “I told him he has more power than he realizes, and the things he does people look up to him for,” she says. “I do think this has been a huge lesson for him.” Going forward, Dobrik plans to lean away from the pranks and stunts (with an exception, apparently, reserved for Rolling Stone reporters). He says he wants to come back, though he understand­s why many people may not want him to. “I’d want me to go away too if I knew I was a bad person,” he says. “But I do think I’m a good person who’s made mistakes.”

But all the HR systems and appearance releases in the world will not solve the central problem of Dobrik and others like him making money off a platform that rewards those who are motivated by the central question of how to make something bigger and better than the last thing. Giving away Teslas, blasting flamethrow­ers, staging fivesomes for your horny friend — these are all, thematical­ly, very different types of videos, but they are essentiall­y multiple sides of the same Rubik’s cube, all bombastic gestures intended to capture the attention of an increasing­ly distractib­le online audience. And not even the cancellati­on of David Dobrik can change the fact that his brand of content — the pranks, the stunts, the thrill of knowing someone is going to be genuinely surprised, or the schadenfre­ude that comes with knowing someone is genuinely uncomforta­ble — is one of the motors that keeps YouTube up and running.

“It’s this weird scenario where us, the audience, thrives on that type of content,” Gagliese says. “Which is an interestin­g dynamic because [we] as an audience shouldn’t be interested in that type of content. But it’s what makes people watch. . . . [YouTubers’ lives have] been consumed by creating these opportunit­ies to film content, and the prank culture on social puts people in a bad position. So as long as there’s demand, even if David Dobrik doesn’t do it, there’ll be 20 other YouTubers lined up to do that stuff right after.”

On the WAy home from Dobrik’s old house, we pass a young girl standing in the road, maybe about nine or 10, panhandlin­g to raise money for her cancer treatment. For a split second, it occurs to me that, in light of the elderly lady prank, Dobrik may have planted this girl in order to give her a Tesla or an iPad or an offer to pay for her treatment. But this turns out not to be the case. Dobrik drives off, and no one comments on it.

Later, by Dobrik’s infinity pool, I ask if he saw the girl. “I wanted to give that person money, but I didn’t want to do it in front of you,” he says. “It’s so easy for me to give somebody cash, so easy, so easy. [So] whenever I can, I do that. . . . I did that thing with you, that was supposed to be cheesy and goofy,” he says, referring to the old lady stunt, “but I didn’t want to look like I was putting on some kind of a performanc­e.”

I tell him that it’s incredibly disorienti­ng to view everything someone does as performanc­e, and offer that it must be exhausting to have that calculus factor into all of your decisions. “That’s the entire internet,” he says. “Every move now is like, ‘I don’t want people to think I’m doing this for this.’ You’ll never, ever get people to believe that your intentions are 100 percent pure. You never, never will. And they can be 100 percent pure, and you’ll make fucking mistakes, and maybe it’ll look like they weren’t pure. But you’ll never convince anybody of that.”

“Everyone likes to look at a car crash,” he says later. “That’s just like a guilty pleasure that everyone has. You drive by. You’re like, ‘Is that fucking person dead? What’s going on?’ That’s what the internet is. People love to see chaos. And it’s all fun and games till you’re in the car crash.” Then he tears up. And I have no idea whether or not to believe him.

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