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Apologize, scrub, repeat: Data shows how YouTuber Shane Dawson comes back after cancelation

Shane Dawson

  • Shane Dawson has been "canceled" multiple times in his long career as a YouTube star, but still maintains a core group of fans and 21.1 million subscribers on his channel.
  • Dawson has seen plenty of controversy in his career stemming from incidents of blackface, saying the "N-word," making jokes about pedophilia, and pretending to masturbate to a promotional photo of an 11-year-old Willow Smith.
  • Data from Social Blade reveals Dawson's formula for coming back after a canclation. He apologizes, deletes videos, and repeats the process.
  • While he stepped away from social media and video making in June 2020, recent appearances on his fiance's podcast and new merchandise suggest that Dawson plans to stage his latest comeback in the near future.
  • This is part of Insider's "uncancelable" series, which uses data to analyze cancel culture. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

When YouTube megastar Shane Dawson was "canceled" in June, it wasn't a first for the creator, and judging by his recent activity, it may not be the last time either. 

Dawson has been on the platform for over a decade and built one of YouTube's most successful brands, with over 20 million followers, a makeup line, and a series of documentaries on controversial creators. But his online journey hasn't been without its fair share of controversy. Frequently, his critics reference old, racist content he created.

In June, when a wave of criticism around his old content enveloped him again, he lost a million subscribers, according to data from Social Blade, and he continues to lose 23,000 subscribers a week.

Now, it appears that Dawson is turning to a familiar playbook to try to rehabilitate his career once again.

Dawson began his YouTube career as a creator who made shocking and controversial segments

In 2008, when Dawson was 19, he began uploading sketch comedy videos to YouTube, quickly stepping into controversial and offensive territory. He dressed in blackface on multiple occasions to portray a character he dubbed "Shanaynay," while sometimes using the "N-word" as well.

Dawson in blackface dressed as his character, "Shanaynay."
Shane Dawson

According to Adam McIntyre, a YouTuber whose channel focuses on drama on the platform and has over 130,000 subscribers, many of YouTube's biggest stars have built the foundations of their careers off of problematic content, only for it to reappear in the future.

"They all have a racist past that resurfaces when they hit their peak," McIntyre said of major white creators who have been canceled over their old content. Cancel culture is a relatively recent phenomenon characterized by public figures and everyday people being called out online for behavior deemed problematic. Cancelation can have major consequences for people with smaller profiles, but large creators appear to have a level of protection from the worst effects.

For creators, when old racist or offensive content resurfaces, they typically go to great lengths to scrub the content from existence. The day after Dawson's apology video titled "Taking Accountability" was posted in June, he removed numerous old videos that had a combined total of 1.2 billion views.

Dawson made the video after he faced online criticism from Jaden Smith and his mother Jada Pinkett Smith for a resurfaced video of Dawson pretending to masturbate to a promotional image of an 11-year-old Willow Smith.

But this is not the first time that Dawson apologized and scrubbed controversial videos from the web. Data from Social Blade graphed by Insider shows how Dawson successfully employed his playbook in the past.

In January 2018 Dawson published a video titled "Regarding the rumors about me today" where he attempted to dispel rumors that he was a pedophile, which stemmed from a 2013 podcast episode. 

"Here's the worst part of it. I actually went to Google, and I didn't want to see child pornography, but I was like, 'let me just pretend like I'm a pedophile for a sec,'" Dawson said on a now-deleted podcast. "So I type in 'naked baby'. First of all, I don't understand why anyone would be turned on by that. But… they were sexy. I'm kidding."

In 2018, a YouTube channel known as "Pop Blast" uploaded a video titled "Shane Dawson is a pedophile. Here's the proof," which using edited audio recordings of Dawson's podcast to paint him as a pedophile. 

Pop Blast later released a video suggesting that the channel was paid by fellow YouTuber Logan Paul's manager to make the accusations against Dawson. The allegations were unproven, and Pop Blast's channel was later removed from YouTube for "multiple or severe violations of YouTube's policy against spam, deceptive practices, and misleading content."

While Dawson felt that his podcast mistakes were enough to warrant an apology video of its own, it appears that his core weren't concerned — In the year following Dawson's video, he gained over 8 million additional subscribers.

Still, Dawson deleted several of his older videos from the channel after making the video, accumulating for a combined total of over 300 million deleted views. 

In March 2019, Dawson got more backlash when a podcast episode resurfaced in which he claimed to have had a sexual encounter with a cat. Dawson apologized on Twitter, and despite intense critical attention on YouTube and in the media, the incident did not dent his subscriber growth. While he didn't appear to delete videos after the incident, the podcast episode where he made the cat claim has now been deleted. 

According to Social Blade, Dawson most recently deleted a video on December 2 with 7.6 million views, though it is unclear which specific video he removed from his channel.

Signs point to Dawson making a comeback in the near-future

Dawson hasn't uploaded a video in the past five months and has remained away from most social media. So far, he's lost about 9% of his base. Now, there are signs that once again that he's working on rebuilding what he lost with a comeback.

In late September, Dawson quietly launched a new line of hoodies that say "SPIRALING since 1988" on the front, prompting blowback and confusion as Dawson remained silent following his apology video.

"It's so uncomfortable that Shane Dawson is releasing new merch while he's been MIA," one person tweeted. "It's just weird knowing he hasn't said anything since June and still comes out with new stuff."

Dawson also launched a line of slime.

He's also notably made appearances on his fiancé Ryland Adams' podcast and YouTube channel, where Adams has continually maintained support for Dawson. Now, Dawson has begun to post more frequently on his social media.

Insider's Kat Tenbarge wrote that Dawson's activity had the signs of a strategic comeback, saying, "by reappearing in front of his most devoted audience only — the fans who followed not only Dawson but his family and friends, too — Dawson is reigniting his fandom without overstepping into a more mainstream audience that still wants him to address his controversial content."

Dawson could be too big to fail

With 21.1 million subscribers on his channel, Dawson has a greater following on the platform than the individual populations of 47 of 50 states. Though he's lost subscribers, he still has a very large fanbase willing to accept him and vouch for his future projects. He could be too big to fail.

"There is a huge built-in audience, which is why I don't believe these people will ever be canceled," McIntyre said YouTube's largest and most controversial stars, Dawson included. 

A large fanbase like Dawson's also comes with an added benefit that prevents total cancelation: defense. While other creators have gotten sucked into defending themselves online, Dawson has the luxury of letting his fans do that work for him, while he finds ways to reintroduce himself.

While Dawson's following has slightly decreased in recent months and his reputation has certainly taken a blow, he continues to have an army of supporters waiting for his return — all a creator needs to stay in the business.

Kat Tenbarge contributed reporting to this article.

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