To Catch a YouTube Predator: The Horrific Case of Viral Star Austin Jones
How a 24-year-old social-media sensation got busted for soliciting child pornography from his teenage fans.
While all of the adults have been busy logging on to Twitter dot com to argue about Megyn Kelly, teens and tweens have receded into darker and darker corners of the World Wide Web. YouTube, the original home of the cat video, has grown wild and vast, and is lorded over by adolescent content-makers armed with makeup tutorials and acoustic covers. While anyone can upload online, it takes a certain type of teen to build a following on the internet. The cookie-cutter YouTube star—at least of the male variety—seems to be predominately white, with the voice of a medieval choirboy and the haircut of a 2010 Justin Bieber. Austin Jones, a 24-year-old YouTuber, falls effortlessly into this archetype.
Jones has uploaded dozens of covers and video confessionals on his YouTube page—predominantly renditions of emo classics from the likes of Paramore and Fall Out Boy. Think of Jones as 2017’s answer to the Warped Tour. Why waste money on a new pair of Vans when you could just open up your laptop and watch a video of Austin Jones harmonizing with himself on a Twenty One Pilots track? And while the prospect of that YouTube video might strike you, an adult reader, as the 21st circle of hell, kids on the internet actually want to listen to this stuff. Jones’ most popular a capella cover, of My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade,” has over five million views.
Of course, making bad covers of already shitty music isn’t a crime—but producing child pornography is. On Monday, Jones was seized at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and taken into custody on two counts of production of child pornography. According to the criminal complaint against Jones, the YouTube star “used Facebook and Apple’s iMessage service to request and received videos depicting the genitalia of minor females, knowing that they were only 14 or 15 years old.” The complaint then describes an interview between Jones and Homeland Security investigators, during which Jones confessed that he had used Facebook to conduct sexually explicit conversations with young girls and solicit videos of them dancing and/or performing sexual acts.
The complaint specifically outlines two incidents concerning a Victim A and a Victim B. Jones started chatting with the 14-year-old Victim A on Facebook in May 2017. Jones instructed her to make and send him videos under the guise of a “try out” (the victim referred to it as an “audition”). The disturbing exchange, which is excerpted in the complaint, shows Jones giving detailed directions: “At the beginning, get super close and say these lines: Hey Austin, it’s (name) and this butt is (age) years old and then make it clap for 30 seconds. Got it?” The complaint continues, “JONES continually encouraged her to ‘go give me a boner,’ asked her if she wanted to ‘try out more’ and provided directions regarding how she should dance, what she should wear, how she should adjust the camera in the videos, and that she should talk about her age ‘the whole time.’”
Victim B, also 14 at the time, was targeted by Jones in August 2016. While pressing Victim B to produce more sexually explicit videos, Jones wrote, “I’m just trying to help you! I know you’re trying your hardest to prove you’re my biggest fan. And I don’t want to have to find someone else.” Throughout the course of these conversations, Victim B sent Jones approximately 25 videos, eight of which were sexually explicit.
Jones is facing a minimum of 15 years in prison for each count of production of child pornography. The singer, who will reportedly remain in federal custody until his Wednesday bond hearing, faced similar, albeit less severe accusations in 2015. In a 2015 YouTube apology video, Jones copped to lying about his age and pressuring underage girls to send him twerking videos. “I’m embarrassed,” he wrote in an accompanying Facebook post (which has since been deleted). “I’d have conversations online with girls that would involve me asking them to create a video of themselves twerking. Sometimes I’d make videos of myself doing some twerk moves in return. Here’s the truth: I NEVER asked them to do anything more than send a twerking video. Nothing EVER went beyond that.”
Anyone wondering how an admitted predator was able to maintain his viral popularity for two more years has a thing or two to learn about YouTube.
YouTube, much like the rest of the internet and the rest of the world, has a bad habit of supporting bad men—particularly the kind that abuse, harm, and malign young women. In 2015, social-media star Carter Reynolds had a similar fall from grace when footage leaked of him pressuring his also internet-famous girlfriend to perform a sexual act (Reynolds was 19 at the time, and his girlfriend was 16). In a subsequent two-hour YouNow stream, Reynolds urged his ex to apologize, saying, “I didn’t rape her. She knows that herself... The fact that she’s trying to be all innocent now or something… it didn’t affect her that much. I know it didn’t.” This romance gone wrong had many acts, the majority of which occurred on the internet; suffice it to say that it ended in Reynolds threatening to commit suicide on Twitter and his ex-girlfriend overdosing and then Snapchatting from her hospital bed. TL;DR the kids are not all right.
Of course, these incidents are culled from the most egregious end of the bad-behavior spectrum. But these alleged crimes can be contextualized within an enabling internet culture where misogyny often runs rampant, and the list of iPhone-dependent deplorables is never-ending. Let’s not forget Nash Grier, the teenage Vine phenomenon who teamed up with fellow Vine star Cameron Dallas and YouTube star JC Caylen to inform their fans about “What guys look for in girls.” In that 2013 video, the man-boys expressed a preference for short and petite girls, with “natural” looks and “really good smiles.” They also criticized women who don’t shave, implying that natural facial or body hair is “gross.” Caylen shared his distaste for “fake tits,” with Grier adding that he dislikes women who are “obnoxious and loud.” Grier also urged his majority-female fans to “play hard to get,” telling them “the chase is such a big part” of what makes a woman attractive. For what it’s worth, Grier also uses homophobic slurs.
There’s also Vine and YouTube star Cameron Dallas, who came under fire again when he slut-shamed Jessica Alba during the 2016 Teen Choice Awards. But Austin Jones’ alleged sex crimes certainly take the vile viral cake, leaving us nostalgic for a not-so-distant past of AIM and chat rooms.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included reports of allegations against Vine star Jacob Sartorius for soliciting nude photos from fans via Facebook. However, according to a statement from Facebook, "The alleged messaging from Jacob's Facebook account took place on January 29, 2016. Jacob, in fact, did not have any Facebook account until March 18, 2016, when he visited Facebook HQ in San Francisco and they set up his first Facebook account." We regret the error.