Last week, a federal jury in Georgia ruled in favor of Cardi B’s libel case against YouTuber Latasha “Tasha K” Kebe. Kebe, most known for her popular YouTube channel UnWineWithTashaK, has made numerous videos alleging that Cardi B was a prostitute, contracted herpes, and used cocaine. Kebe was ordered to pay nearly $4 million to the rapper after the jury found her liable for defamation and invasion of privacy. (Cardi filed the suit against Kebe in 2019, almost a year after she released her debut album, which was ironically titled Invasion of Privacy.)
In November, Cardi provided the case’s judge with her 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” following Kebe’s allegations. She also alleged that the online harassment following Kebe’s claims 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 “‘dragged’ 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 been shaped by, whichever internet platforms are dominant in a given moment: Salacious headlines went from being printed across tabloid covers to spearheading the personalities of the loudest voices in the mid-aughts blog era. Perez Hilton and Necole Bitchie are no longer digitally airing would-be dirty laundry under clever pseudonyms, and, naturally, dozens of online communities looking for “spilled tea” popped up in their place right alongside new social media sites.
Unlike traditional tabloids, which paid for exclusives, the business of gossip changed as it transitioned to YouTube. Creators now monetize the videos where they’re chatting about popular topics, and with a crop of viral sensations cast as new celebrities, the moneymaking possibilities, for a time, seemed endless. “YouTube’s gossip ecosystem exists like a world parallel to our own—a little spinning globe of YouTube celebrities, YouTube rumors, and the people who watch,” Lizzie Plaugic wrote for The Verge in 2017.
New media’s appeal is redefining who gets to be considered gatekeepers. The downside? It’s redefining who gets to 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 has ethical training. Unfortunately for the new voices using the internet as a game of viral telephone, the law, and its repercussions, have stayed the same. Cardi B’s win isn’t just about clearing her name. It will change the way the internet engages with celebrity gossip.
It’s incredibly easy to type a given celebrity’s name into YouTube and return eye-popping rumors about them. Out of curiosity, I typed in “Rihanna.” The results on the first page include videos titled, “Rihanna Finally Speaks on Getting Married to ASAP Rocky,” and, “Rihanna Speaks On Why She Always Hated Kendall Jenner.” But video titles like these—and the commentary and claims they offer after you click—may soon become a thing of the past, based on the new legal precedent around libel and invasion of privacy Cardi just set.
“This lawsuit really should give [YouTubers] some pause [if they] think that they are completely insulated from any repercussions from what they may say online,” said Daniel Powell, a managing attorney at Minc Law, a firm that specializes in online defamation and harassment.
According to Powell, both Cardi B’s and Tasha K’s popularity made a compelling argument for awarding damages based on of how much reach each woman has: In 2018, Kebe interviewed [a Bronx woman named] Starmarie Jones, who was also sued in this suit: Jones claimed she was friends with Cardi B before her rap career. The video, titled “EXCLUSIVE: Cardi B’s EX-FRIEND ALLEGES Cardi B Kept A Huge Box Filled With MONISTAT & REVEALS More!” garnered over four million views.
In the end, Tasha K was ordered to pay $1.5 million of the $4 million reward in punitive damages, a move that Powell said is directly representative of the precedent the case will set for other YouTubers. “Punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff. They’re intended to punish the defendant—to send a message to the community, to be a deterrent for future conduct like this,” said Powell. “The jury verdict signals that jurors, [who] represent society, are recognizing the dangers 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 rich people and celebrities hoping to come for their detractors. As Cardi noted in her first public statement following the verdict, her wealth afforded her the privilege to hire a legal team to fight a defamation case for four years. “The only difference between me and the high schooler who is being cyberbullied and lied on by their 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 an incubator for hearsay. “The unchecked behavior and provably false content on platforms like YouTube have to be addressed and removed. The constant lies reported as factual from journalists and bloggers have to end.”
Legally speaking, how responsible is YouTube? In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act to ensure that the internet could harbor the free flow of information while also protecting minors from the obscene material at their fingertips. Section 230 of the CDA, Powell said, comprises “the 26 words that gave us the internet as we know it.” It reads, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, outside of public and governmental disapproval, a megaplatform like YouTube or Facebook isn’t currently responsible for the user-generated content that appears on it—at least, for now, as enforceable ethical standards do their best to play catch-up with the Wild West landscape of bullshit on social media platforms.
“I don’t think platforms will ever be held responsible for misinformation,” said Anita Sharma, founder of Sharma Law, a New York City–based firm that specializes in entertainment law and digital representation with a robust client roster of YouTubers and influencers. “[YouTube] can do something like Twitter and say, ‘This is not correct. Do not rely on this.’ Under pressure, they can flag things that are blatantly wrong and outrageous. But there’s so much of that gray area—how would they do that?” It’s not as simple as Instagram flagging posts about COVID-19 because, with over 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube a minute, the threshold for what is considered “blatantly wrong and outrageous” would be almost impossible to define.
Following the landmark verdict in the Cardi B case, Kebe released a public statement on her YouTube channel. It felt like a stark difference to the genre of YouTuber-issued apologies. The 12-minute video, which differed drastically from her admission on the witness stand, felt like an anti-apology. She called Cardi B “the machine” instead of referring to her by name. She doubled down on her allegations.
The rapper won the lawsuit by way of “sympathy and payola,” Kebe claimed. “We called bluff against a machine that wanted to bully me for not wavering to my personal beliefs,” she said, claiming it is in Cardi’s professional and public interest to promote a reckless lifestyle.
Despite Kebe’s recommittal to her allegations, she said she took down the videos contested in the lawsuit out of respect for the court. “If you are a public figure that pushes this image and this lifestyle for likes and views in a way to make money in our society, then I, and we, have the duty to exercise our First Amendment right as traditional media and new age media analysts to say, No, this ain’t it.”
What Kebe fails to realize in this line of thought is that reporting an inaccurate STD diagnosis, among other things, as fact is not synonymous with the right to exercise free speech as a “new age media analyst,” which is not synonymous with “cultural critic.” An analyst uses quantitative data (think data and analytics) to evaluate marketing campaigns, and a critic uses journalistic reporting to explain a cultural phenomena. The lines of cultural analysis and whether or not celebrity gossip fits into that become even more blurred within a space like YouTube, where creators can monetize off of “content” without the checks and balances system of editors in a newsroom. “My case will set a precedent for all future media, and we intend to fight until the truth is out,” Kebe said. This might be the most incontestable part of her statement: If it's unlikely that platforms like YouTube or Instagram will be held accountable for its content, people who can afford to sue will sue. Or gossip channels will shrivel up, like the proliferation of flashy commentators and tabloids that preceded them.
So what does this mean for Kebe’s career moving forward, along with those of other YouTubers occupying a similar lane? After releasing her post-trial statement less than a week ago, Kebe uploaded five new videos, including one titled, “DJ Akademiks CALL GIRLS says his Cards Declined, Fingers in The BUT, & More!” This headline convention drips with the mid-aught nostalgia of the archetype popularized by TMZ and MediaTakeOut, with one glaring difference: Both sites were founded by former lawyers, who presumably had a sense of how to toe the line.
Not every independently run tabloid channel on social media is as blatantly controversial as Kebe’s. Some are gossip channels simply masquerading as “reaction pages,” with many blasting popular YouTubers, influencers, and celebrities anonymously. They’re not off the hook, either. Both Sharma and Powell agreed on one thing: Presenting opinions as statements of facts is not protected by the First Amendment, and whatever a person is calling their gossip channel, they should be mindful that they’re accountable to what they’re saying.
“People think that the law does not apply to the internet, and it does,” said Sharma. “This case is a reminder saying, ‘Hey, YouTubers—you’re still subject to the law.’ That’s something people forget.”
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.