Rapper Cardi B won big in court this week. She was awarded over $4 million, including $1.3 million to cover legal fees, in her landmark libel lawsuit against the YouTuber Tasha K (Latasha Kebe) and her company Kebe Studios LLC for making false claims about her sexual health, drug use, marriage and the well-being of her child. But Cardi B is walking away with more than a financial victory: The case is a cautionary tale for those who want to mix unfounded gossip with news on social media.
The verdict provides hope that the Wild West of YouTube — or the “YouTube streets,” as insiders call it — can finally start to be reined in.
The Grammy Award-winning artist, whose given name is Belcalis Almanzar,filed the lawsuit in 2019 for slander and invasion of privacy after Kebe posted almost 40 videos about her that she refused to remove. In her lawsuit, Cardi B made clear that she was never a prostitute or a cocaine user and had never had herpes, as the YouTuber repeatedly claimed.
Over the years, Kebe’s videos attracted millions of views, helping her secure 1 million subscribers to her monetized channel, as she admitted at trial. With ad revenue, sponsored content and merchandise, top YouTubers’ annual earnings can be in the millions.
In court, Kebe acknowledged that some of her content is fake and that she knew some of the rumors she helped circulate were untrue, although she presented them as facts and even referred to herself as a journalist on her channel. But she admitted that she’s not a journalist and that her primary objective is to entertain her viewers and to increase traffic and viewer engagement through comments and those liking her videos, which would make her content more likely to be recommended across the platform.
Until now, “going viral” has paid — which is just what Kebe’s Cardi B videos did. The defendant even said on the stand that the defamation case “is trending” on social media, surely banking on the lawsuit bringing more attention and views to her channel, and several YouTubers are making a name for themselves covering the trial.
But that easy money has now faced a major constriction. This defamation case, and Cardi B’s victory, does more than highlight how much money is at stake when it comes to social media content. It also shows us what happens when the logics of social media and that of a federal courtroom come head to head.
Much of what Tasha K presented as “receipts,” or proof, for her claims about Cardi B on her channel — from her working as a prostitute, contracting herpes or committing adultery — failed to hold up in court. The jury found her liable on all three counts, including the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Cardi B captured headlines earlier this month after her emotional testimony that the videos made her “extremely suicidal.”
The verdict provides hope that the Wild West of YouTube — or the “YouTube streets,” as insiders call it — can finally start to be reined in. Various forms of harassment and doxxing, which expose users’ personal information like home addresses and places of employment, run rampant on social media every day. Most of us don’t have the resources to wage a three-year lawsuit costing $1.3 million as Cardi B has done, but her taking a public stance on this case and winning a decisive victory should put all those would-be Tasha Ks on notice.
Cardi B is no stranger to social media as a money-making, career-defining machine, of course. At 19, the Bronx, New York, native worked as a dancer at the New York Dolls strip club, now FlashDancers, after being fired as cashier at the Amish Market in Manhattan. It was her social media mastery that brought her talent to light and eventually to a spot on the popular industry-themed reality series “Love & Hip Hop” before becoming a household fixture. Shortly thereafter, she released “Bodak Yellow,” which shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Today, Cardi B has over 120 million Instagram followers and a loyal base of fans who refer to themselves as the Bardi Gang and helped her become the first female rapper to rack up over 10 million sales for multiple songs with the most-streamed rap album by a woman. An expert at personal branding, Cardi B uses social media to speak directly with fans, attracting followers as she chimes in on topics from presidential politics to motherhood while promoting her music and business ventures.
But Cardi B being well liked doesn’t explain her victory in court, not even after saying she would pay all funeral costs associated with the recent Twin Parks Bronx fire. Defamation cases are notoriously hard to win, but Kebe made it easy for jurors who deliberated for only a few hours before announcing their verdict. Between her testimony and the disputed “curse-filled” videos themselves, which were shown in court, Kebe ultimately did herself in.
It’s a sign of how unencumbered content creators like Kebe have felt until now that she felt no need to try to hide this reality. Kebe brazenly declared in a video that she knew the content was fake but that she “wanted the money. This is a business. This is called ratings.” In the Trump era of disinformation and fake news, we shouldn’t be surprised by Kebe’s actions, nor her lack of remorse. If anything, she came across as proud of how she’s been able to build her channel over the last few years. But her lack of contrition likely played a factor for jurors as they considered punitive damages, and the future of her channel is in limbo with this verdict.
Ultimately, this is less about Kebe, or any individual blogger, and more about YouTube as a platform that hosts and creates a monetary incentive for people to produce content that shocks and awes — and profits from that content itself. YouTube is notorious for toxic content, particularly in its comments sections, and recently the site was presented with an open letter from over 80 fact-checking groups requesting that it better monitor false and harassing content.
We shouldn’t be surprised that so many people take advantage of YouTube’s questionable monitoring and uneven enforcement of its own “community guidelines” given the promise of easy money with low barriers to entry. With record numbers of people quitting their traditional jobs, many posting their resignations on social media, we should expect more people opting to develop the sort of unconventional and lucrative company Kebe and her husband created. But now we can expect more lawsuits, too.
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