YouTuber Ruby Franke’s chilling story shows us that internet culture has given child abuse a new place to hide | Zoe Williams

When I first started working in the mid-90s, there was a big furore when a US evangelical church produced a leaflet about child-rearing that included detail on the right size of cane to use to punish a six-month-old baby. The story was enough of a scandal that it travelled across the Atlantic – in the old-fashioned way, from a US newspaper to a British one – but it didn’t merit comment, we decided in the end, because it was just a sad story about a bad person. Child abuse exists, and sometimes hides itself under religion: there are wider conversations about whether or not religions could do more at an institutional level to stamp it out, but those, if they’re in good faith, shouldn’t be started by professed atheists, to whom such institutions would be unreceptive. It was also felt at the time that, just because a person says a thing, even goes so far as to print it on a leaflet, one needn’t necessarily react as if they’ve created a movement.

Thirty years on, child abuse still exists, and still sometimes disguises itself as faith: Ruby Franke, a Utah mother of six, was convicted yesterday of aggravated child abuse, on charges so grave that her consequential sentences could amount to up to 60 years in prison. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she was a prolific parenting YouTuber until her 8 Passengers channel was taken down by the platform last year. She proselytised harsh discipline, such as withholding food as punishment; but she omitted to mention in the vlogs that she created what a prosecutor called “concentration camp-like conditions” for her children, that she made them do physical tasks in extreme heat without shoes, socks or water, and forced them to stand on hot concrete for hours, sometimes even days, at a time. Her malnourished 12-year-old son, who was bound with duct tape, escaped and asked for help from a neighbour. Police later found his sister in a similarly malnourished state.

It’s a sickening story that fills you with that familiar, arid sadness. To hear of children coming to harm provokes disgust and despair because it should; that’s how we survive, by protecting the young and the small.

But if that much is timeless, the movement-building potential of the online influencer is not. Franke in her pomp had more than two million subscribers, and her videos had been seen 1bn times. She was peddling cruelty across the world, in plain sight, and it is chilling to think of the extent to which she normalised it.

Meanwhile, over on X, people were reacting to a blogger on WordPress who was touting a biblical justification for marital rape. Given that it was published in 2018, did it matter any more? Should the platform have done more about it? Was it legitimate even to want to silence him? Did 13m views for the blog in total count as a dangerous new constituency, in which people who would once have been outliers had found their tribe and now furiously justify non-consensual sex to one another? Or is it just the internet, the price for the convenience of which is that someone, probably multiple people, will be publishing some antisocial, as likely as not misogynistic, thing every millisecond of the day?

As all norms around what can and can’t be said have broken down, a notion of parenting has built up, as a general verb, that we should all do the same way if we could only agree what that way was. Part of that is driven by the wild west of social media; if adults don’t know what to make of all this flourishing fundamentalism, or understand what threat, if any, it poses to social harmony and justice, how are kids supposed to grow up around it? So we have quite feverish debates about whether children should have phones, and how much screen time they should get, which ironically creates the space for hyper-authoritarian parenting gurus: if the liberal order is so great, why can’t it make a decision? And why does it make us so anxious?

Ultimately, it wouldn’t have made any difference if YouTube had closed down Franke’s channel sooner: as we’ve seen from Andrew Tate, who was permanently banned from it in 2022, that does nothing to limit a person’s reach. Tate’s content just gets shared by his followers. Besides, Franke didn’t need a vlogger following to abuse her children, and the question of whether or not it intensified her behaviour would be impossible to resolve.

There is no objective measure of proportionality when it comes to the crazy, extreme, inhumane things people say online. Should Franke’s much-vocalised attitudes have been red flags for the authorities sooner? Plainly they should; it shouldn’t have taken her 12-year-old son to escape to a neighbour for this to come to light. But what if she’d actually been a sound parent, self-dramatising and overstating for effect, the way YouTubers usually do? And does the impossibility of distinguishing, remotely, between a drama queen and an abuser in fact create that plain sight for the abuser to hide in?


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