The Mark Laita vs. Tyler Oliveira YouTube fight over the Whittakers, explained.

Nobody wins when creators fight over who is helping a poor family the most.

A photo illustration of the YouTube logo is seen on a smartphone screen. Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A.W. Ohlheiser is a senior technology reporter at Vox, writing about the impact of technology on humans and society. They have also covered online culture and misinformation at the Washington Post, Slate, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other places. They have an MA in religious studies and journalism from NYU.

Trying to keep track of controversies in today’s splintered online world feels like trying to analyze each of the bubbles in a perpetually boiling pot of water. Drama and discourse rockets off the bottom of the pot, breaking through the surface tension and catching our attention just as the steam above dissipates into the air. Hundreds of bubbles pop each minute, and choosing to look at one means ignoring the rest.

A couple weeks ago, I stared into the pot and tried to keep my eyes on just one bubble: a fight between two YouTubers who make a living by filming the poor and vulnerable and turning their footage into social media content. I stayed with it, ignoring the roaring boil of Kate Middleton conspiracy theories, and pausing my personal creeping dread about what AI-generated nonsense is doing to the way we find information online.

This particular bubble of drama popped in the genre of what Kat Higgins, a lecturer in media and culture at the University of London, referred to as “poverty porn.” Poverty porn is hardly isolated to social media — lots of different types of media, including mainstream news coverage, can treat poverty as a spectacle with entertainment value.

But on sites like TikTok and YouTube, this type of content gets lots of views, generally by showing “poverty as something that is shocking, disgusting, or funny,” Higgins said, rather than “as a structural problem demanding structural responses.”

The disagreement between two creators in this genre was not about those systemic issues. Instead, it was largely about which channel should get the most props for helping a single family with a crowdfunding campaign for a new house.

An influencer face-off

Perhaps you’ve seen the Whittakers on social media or in catchy tabloid headlines about “America’s most inbred family.” Footage of interviews with the family members get millions of views on TikTok and YouTube. Personally, I find these videos uncomfortable to watch. But fans of their creator, Mark Laita, praise his work as compassionate and humanizing. Laita has a background in documentary photography. His channel, Soft White Underbelly, focuses on artistically styled interviews with addicts, the unhoused, and the traumatized.

Enter Tyler Oliveira, who is in the Mr. Beast Expanded Universe of flashy YouTubers who use shock and extravagance to get views. Oliveira describes himself as a journalist who films “investigations” into areas of the US that have reputations for being impoverished or dangerous. Generally, these videos feature several man-on-the-street interviews alongside footage meant to underline the points Oliveira wants to make about the place he’s visiting.

A couple weeks ago, Oliveira went to the West Virginia town where the Whittakers live, after being told by someone at Laita’s production company that the Whittakers were under an “exclusive” contract to film with Laita.

Oliveira pulls up at the Whittakers’ home with a car full of groceries. Inspirational music swells in the background as Oliveira unloads his car and meets the Whittakers’ pets.

“How’s the house coming along?” Oliveira asks Betty, one of the Whittaker family members.

“What house?” she replies. The music turns ominous. Oliveira is talking about a GoFundMe account Laita runs on behalf of the family, one that was, at one point, framed as a donation fund to help the family buy a house. “Mark says we ain’t got no more money in there,” she adds.

Oliveira tells them he bets there’s $50,000 or $60,000 in the fundraising account, but doesn’t quite explain why he believes that to be true. His video doesn’t outright accuse Laita of fraud, but pretty aggressively raises questions about what Laita does with the GoFundMe donations he collects for the family.

“Mark!” Oliveira asks to the camera, while driving away from the family. “Where is the house?” Oliveira’s video quickly topped 5 million views.

Laita responded with a video of his own, “Whittakers GoFundMe – The Problem With Social Media.” The video is a classic of the “response with receipts” genre of YouTube drama video, as Laita displays screenshots of the bank transactions between him and the Whittaker family that he says account for the funds. The GoFundMe, he said, “has generated a lot of money for the family.”

“The problem,” Laita said, has been that members of the family call him “every two or three weeks” requesting money from the GoFundMe to cover their expenses. Laita adds that he pays the tax on the donation money himself, and gives the Whittakers “every cent” that is left after taxes.

The Whittakers’ lives are “so much better” since Laita entered the picture, he said. He then added he was ending the GoFundMe for the Whittakers and stepping back from filming them. Nobody in the family, he noted, came to his defense after the Oliveira video dropped.

“Never once have I ever gotten a thank you from anybody,” he said. “But that’s a whole other conversation.” Later in the video, Laita said that running GoFundMes for the people he films has become a “headache” for him, and that he’s going to stop them altogether.

Fundraising is one way that creators like Laita and Oliveira can make their content feel less exploitative to their fans, who get the experience of doing something “good” for the people they just watched, and might feel like the creator behind that content has motivations beyond just getting views. But it’s more complicated than that.

“At the end of the day, a fundraiser is just another engagement mechanism and just another technique of self-branding,” Higgins said. It’s hard to think of a fundraiser as altruism when the GoFundMe itself becomes a vehicle for getting views. It’s worth noting that both Laita and Oliveira monetize their channel with ads. Laita also offers a paid subscription service for fans.

The icky ethics of “poverty porn”

There’s a whole subgenre of TikTok content that clearly lays out the transaction at the heart of this content. These accounts will post short-form videos in which creators “go up to people who are experiencing homelessness, and they put a camera in their face, and they’re like, ‘I’m gonna connect you with resources.’” said Jess Rauchberg, an assistant professor of culture and media at Seton Hall University.

It’s good that people in need are being offered help, but the dynamic between creator and vulnerable person being filmed is creating a situation where their consent is questionable at best. “It’s almost difficult to say no,” Rauchberg said. “It becomes less about the act of supporting people and making sure needs are met and more about generating views, generating them quickly, and using disability or poverty to get those views.”

From the chatter I’ve seen online about this disagreement in comment sections and on YouTube drama recaps, it seems like Laita ultimately came out better than Oliveira in terms of their public image. But both still have tons of online fans, and neither Laita nor Oliveira responded to my multiple emails seeking comment.

Meanwhile, their viewers will get what they want, as Higgins put it: Content that makes a spectacle out of poverty can make us feel “safe,” reassuring us that poor people are “not like us.” Poverty porn works by leaving viewers entertained rather than angry, ready to “click the next video” rather than tackle the structures that lead to poverty in the first place.

I think a lot about online representation and consent, whether it’s about viral videos featuring people with dementia or how people with terminal illnesses tell their own stories. Maybe that’s why I paused on this particular controversy. It resonates with questions that come up again and again in discussions about online content: Who gets to tell their stories online? And who has stories told on their behalf?

For now, this particular drama has spread into the air, indistinguishable from the steam of all the other pops of conflict over the past weeks. I can’t wait to find out which bubble will give me an existential crisis next.

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