YouTube streamer Jammal Harraz walked into a University of Washington sociology department meeting on May 31 with a phone and a selfie stick.
Then one of his viewers paid Harraz to make a bomb threat.
“C-4 has been successfully activated,” a computerized voice said from the phone speaker, sending students and faculty running from the building. Harraz’s phone then beeped a bomb countdown before playing the sound of an explosion.
Harraz didn’t have a bomb or any connection to the university. But now he did have $4.20. That’s how much any of Harraz’s YouTube followers could pay him to make Harraz’s phone speaker play an audio message of their choice.
In court papers filed after his arrest over the bomb threat, prosecutors noted that Harraz smiled on his livestream as he was arrested—“as if he was pleased that his arrest would boost his notoriety.”
Now Harraz, known on YouTube as “Arab Andy,” has been charged with making a bomb threat and faces a potential 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Harraz is one of the “IRL streamers” of YouTube, people who take money in exchange for letting their audience say anything through speakers aimed at unsuspecting people.
Given the nature of anonymous internet commenters, those paid comments are often violent, racist, or threatening. (Before the bomb threat, Harraz sat in the front of a UW class, while a viewer paid for his phone to play the message “blacks are n--gers.”)
But the comments can also be lucrative for both the streamers and the social media platforms that host them.
Harraz—a comparatively little-known livestreamer—told police that he had made $1,000 over just a month of livestreaming, including $200 made in the two hours before his arrest. Harraz made so much money broadcasting user comments that prosecutors wrote that, despite his arrest, he “has no incentive to stop his activities.”
A GoFundMe purporting to be raising money for Harraz’s legal fees has since raised nearly $1,000. Harraz’s lawyer declined to comment.
Several prominent “IRL streamers” offer their viewers the option of paying extra for “text-to-speech” comments, which are then broadcast out of phones or speakers in an attempt to baffle or terrify random bystanders.
Those comments turn the most popular public livestreams into a string of threats, racial slurs, and sexual harassment. And they’re often inflicted on the people who can’t just walk away from an encounter like Uber drivers, or grocery store employees.
Streams from YouTube livestreaming personality “Asian Andy”—who has more than 400,000 subscribers across two YouTube accounts—regularly feature viewers paying to make anti-Semitic, racist, or violent comments. In just one trip to a college campus and a grocery store, his viewers paid him to broadcast remarks like “the German people must rise as a master race” and “all infidels must die” in public. It’s no surprise, then, that Harraz is far from the first streamer to have an encounter with the police.
YouTube, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, takes an unknown cut of fees paid for “super chats” for itself. While the site doesn’t offer text-to-speech options itself, other services—including Streamlabs, a streaming package used by Harraz—can convert YouTube chats in speech comments. While YouTube’s broader community guidelines include prohibitions on hateful or violent content and threats, a number of YouTube users whose commenters have used their chats to broadcast threats remain on the site.
Because of the potential for harassment, Twitch urges streamers not to leave their homes with the text-to-speech option on.
Los Angeles-based livestreamer Andre McGriff, who has more than 50,000 subscribers on Twitch under the name “Dankquan,” started as a World of Warcraft streamer who rarely left his house, but was drawn into public livestreaming by the potential to make more money.
While McGriff says streams that offer text-to-speech can often become the most “thrilling” streams, they can also attract users looking to get streamers in trouble for just a few dollars.
“They just want to be the puppeteer to your life,” McGriff said.
But while many of the comments seem aimed at getting a streamer in trouble with police, McGriff says viewers are sometimes trying to be perversely helpful—by generating the kind of drama and controversy that gets attention on the internet.
“It’s hard to say that they’re wrong sometimes,” McGriff says. “I can definitely see the pros and cons of getting the police called on somebody. I mean, the clip will get a lot of views.”