What does Cardi B’s lawsuit against Tasha K mean for YouTubers?
Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Film Magic
Last week, a federal jury in Georgia ruled in favor of Cardi B’s defamation case against YouTuber Latasha “Tasha K” Kebe. Kebe, best known for her popular YouTube channel UnWineWithTashaK, has made numerous videos alleging Cardi B was a prostitute, contracted herpes and used cocaine. Kebe was ordered to pay the rapper nearly $4 million after the jury found her liable for defamation and invasion of privacy. (Cardi sued Kebe in 2019, nearly a year after releasing her debut album, ironically titled Privacy breach.)
In November, Cardi provided the judge in the case with the results of an STD test, a move she used to prove Kebe’s malicious intent. Throughout the two-week trial, Cardi said she felt “extremely suicidal” over Kebe’s allegations. She also alleged that online harassment following Kebe’s claims had made her physically ill, causing her weight loss, migraines and anxiety.
According to a report by Law360, Kebe testified earlier in the trial that she “‘trolled’ and targeted Cardi B, whose real name is Belcalis Almanzar, to drive public engagement with her online content.”
The evolution of gossip has largely shaped and has been shaped by dominant internet platforms at one time: salacious headlines have gone from being printed on the covers of tabloids to spearheading personalities from the loudest voices to the blogging era of the mid-2000s. Perez Hilton and Necole Bitchie are no longer digitally spreading dirty laundry under clever pseudonyms and, naturally, dozens of online communities looking for “spilled tea” have sprung up in their place right next to new social media sites.
Unlike traditional tabloids, which paid for exclusives, the gossip business changed when it transitioned to YouTube. Creators are now monetizing videos where they discuss popular topics, and with a crop of viral sensations featured as new celebrities, the money-making opportunities, for a while, seemed endless. “YouTube’s gossip ecosystem exists as a parallel world to ours — a small, spinning globe of YouTube celebrities, YouTube rumors, and people watching,” Lizzie Plaugic wrote for The edge in 2017.
The lure of new media is redefining who can be considered a gatekeeper. The wrong side? It’s about redefining who can be considered gatekeepers. The oversaturation of gossip vloggers results in a vast proliferation of voices, all saying what’s newsworthy under the guise of free speech. And while everyone has an opinion, not everyone is ethically trained. Unfortunately for new voices using the internet as a viral phone game, the law and its repercussions have remained the same. Cardi B’s win isn’t just about clearing her name. It will change the way the internet interacts with celebrity gossip.
It’s incredibly easy to type in a certain celebrity’s name on YouTube and send up some catchy rumors about them. Out of curiosity, I typed in “Rihanna.” Results on the front page include videos titled “Rihanna finally talks about marrying ASAP Rocky” and “Rihanna explains why she’s always hated Kendall Jenner.” But video titles like these — and the comments and claims they offer after clicking — may soon be a thing of the past, based on the new legal precedent regarding defamation and invasion of privacy that Cardi just established.
“This trial should really give [YouTubers] pause [if they] believe they are completely insulated from any repercussions of what they may say online,” said Daniel Powell, managing attorney at Minc Law, a firm specializing in online defamation and harassment.
According to Powell, the popularity of Cardi B and Tasha K made a compelling case for awarding damages based on each woman’s reach: In 2018, Kebe interviewed [a Bronx woman named] Starmarie Jones, who was also sued in this lawsuit: Jones claimed she was friends with Cardi B before her rap career. The video, titled “EXCLUSIVE: Cardi B’S EX-FRIEND RELEASES Cardi B kept a huge box full of MONISTAT and REVEALS more!” garnered over four million views.
Ultimately, Tasha K was ordered to pay $1.5 million of the $4 million award in punitive damages, a decision that Powell says is directly representative of the precedent the case will set for other YouTubers. “Punitive damages are not intended to compensate the plaintiff. They are meant to punish the accused — to send a message to the community, to be a deterrent to future conduct like this,” Powell said. “The jury verdict signals that the jurors, [who] represent the company, recognize the dangers that these attacks could cause.
Despite her win, Cardi B is unlikely to be the last person slandered online. The power this establishes is still, for now, aligned with the wealthy and the famous who hope to pick up their critics. As Cardi noted in her first public statement after the verdict, her wealth gave her the privilege of hiring a legal team to fight a defamation case for four years. “The only difference between me and the high school kid who is cyberbullied and lied to by classmates is the money and resources I have access to,” she wrote in an Instagram caption.
Cardi also criticized platforms like YouTube that act as a hearsay incubator. “Rogue behavior and blatantly false content on platforms like YouTube must be addressed and removed. The constant lies reported as fact by journalists and bloggers must stop.
Legally speaking, what responsibility is Youtube? In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act to ensure that the Internet could accommodate the free flow of information while protecting minors from obscene material at their fingertips. Section 230 of the CDA, Powell said, includes “the 26 words that gave us the internet as we know it.” It reads: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service should be considered the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, apart from public and governmental disapproval, a megaplatform like YouTube or Facebook is currently not responsible for the user-generated content that appears there – at least, for now, because the applicable ethical standards are doing their best to play catch-up with the Wild West bullshit landscape on social media platforms.
“I don’t think the platforms will ever be held accountable for misinformation,” said Anita Sharma, founder of Sharma Law, a New York-based firm specializing in entertainment law and digital representation with a strong list of clients from YouTubers and influencers. “[YouTube] can do something like Twitter and say, “That’s not right”. Don’t be fooled by this. Under pressure, they may report blatantly false and outrageous things. But there’s so much of this gray area – how would they do that? It’s not as easy as Instagram to flag posts about COVID-19 because, with over 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube per minute, the threshold for what is considered “patently false and outrageous” would be almost impossible to define.
Following the historic verdict in the Cardi B case, Kebe released a public statement on his YouTube channel. It felt like a stark difference from the kind of apology the YouTuber issues. The 12-minute video, which differed dramatically from his admission on the witness stand, felt like an anti-apology. She called Cardi B “the machine” instead of calling her name. She doubled down on her allegations.
The rapper won the lawsuit out of “sympathy and payola,” Kebe said. “We called the bluff against a machine that wanted to bully me for not shy away from my personal beliefs,” she said, saying it’s in Cardi’s professional and public interest to promote a style reckless life.
Despite Kebe’s recommitment to her allegations, she said she removed the disputed videos in the lawsuit out of respect for the court. “If you are a public figure who pushes this image and lifestyle for tastes and opinions in order to make money in our society, then I and we have a duty to exercise our First Amendment right by both mainstream media and new age media analysts to say, No that’s not it.”
What Kebe fails to realize in this line of thinking is that reporting an inaccurate STD diagnosis, among other things, as a fact is not synonymous with the right to exercise free speech as an “analyst”. new age media”, which is not synonymous with “cultural”. review.” An analyst uses quantitative data (think data and analytics) to evaluate marketing campaigns, and a reviewer uses journalistic reporting to explain a cultural phenomenon. The lines of cultural analysis and whether whether or not celebrity gossip fits into it becomes even fuzzier in a space like YouTube, where creators can monetize “content” without the checks and balances of editors in a newsroom.” My case will set a precedent for all future media outlets, and we intend to fight until the truth comes out,” Kebe said. This is perhaps the most indisputable part of his statement: if it is unlikely that platforms like YouTube or Instagram are held accountable for its content, people who can afford to sue will be prosecute. Or the gossip channels will shrivel up, like the proliferation of flashy commentators and tabloids that came before them.
So what does this mean for the future of Kebe’s career, as well as those of other YouTubers on a similar path? After posting his post-trial statement less than a week ago, Kebe uploaded five new videos, including one titled “DJ Akademiks CALL GIRLS says his cards were declined, Fingers in The BUT, & More! ” This mainstream convention is dripping with nostalgia for the archetype popularized by TMZ and MediaTakeOut, with one stark difference: Both sites were founded by former lawyers, who likely had an idea of how to toe the line.
Not all independently run tabloid channels on social media are as overtly controversial as Kebe’s. Some are gossip channels simply masquerading as “reaction pages,” featuring many popular YouTubers, influencers, and celebrities on an anonymous basis. They aren’t off the hook either. Sharma and Powell agreed on one thing: presenting opinions as statements of fact is not protected by the First Amendment, and whatever name someone gives their gossip channel, they should be aware that they are responsible for what they say.
“People think the law doesn’t apply to the internet, and it does,” Sharma said. “This case is a reminder saying, ‘Hey, YouTubers, you’re still under the law.’ It’s something that people forget.
Kristin Corry is Senior Writer for VICE.