A new documentary series investigating Onision, a YouTuber accused of abusive behavior and grooming by multiple women, brings the story to a wider, less online audience. But the series premiere was marred by criticism from the very YouTube community that brought the story to mainstream light.
Onision: In Real Life is a three-episode docuseries that premiered on Discovery’s streaming platform discovery+ on Jan. 4. It looks into Gregory (sometimes James) Jackson, known online as Onision. The now 35-year-old began posting videos in 2007, garnering a largely teenage following with his shocking sketches, viral music videos, and inflammatory, misogynistic rants. (YouTube has not banned him from the platform in spite of complaints from other users.)
Onision has also displayed a pattern of pursuing relationships with his much younger fans, prompting other YouTubers to post videos him. YouTubers known as commentary creators have posted hours of content about Onision and his alleged abuse, stitching together overlapping timelines through screenshots, clips from now-deleted Onision videos, and correspondence with survivors.
have accused Onision of abuse, and several were interviewed on Chris Hansen’s YouTube livestream, Have a Seat With Chris Hansen, in late 2019. While his series undoubtedly alerted a wider audience to Onision’s predatory behavior, many in the YouTube community have expressed reservations about Hansen’s intentions in bringing the story to a mainstream distributor like discovery+. In fact, Hansen’s deal with Investigative Discovery deterred a number of survivors from appearing in Onision: In Real Life.
The first two episodes of Onision: In Real Life focus on Onision’s alleged abuse of his much younger partners and persistent harassment of women online. It features interviews with Onision’s estranged father, Randy Daniel, who sheds light on his son’s violent past and alleges that Onision attacked him. YouTuber Eugenia Cooney, who was the target of a relentless online harassment campaign led by Onision, also appears in the series to discuss his inappropriate fixation on her appearance and eating disorder. The series paints Onision as something of a charismatic cult leader who used his popularity and online following to coerce young women into romantic relationships, levying his audience against them when the relationships ended.
“The entirety of this journey in the last 12 years has really been me thinking that I was totally alone in it.”
“The entirety of this journey in the last 12 years has really been me thinking that I was totally alone in it,” Shiloh Hoganson, a singer known mononymously as Shiloh, told Mashable.
Shiloh began communicating with Onision as a 17-year-old fan. Onision, then 25, divorced his wife and formally introduced Shiloh as his girlfriend in a YouTube video weeks before her 18th birthday. She alleges that over the course of their relationship, he emotionally tormented her so severely, she had a stress-induced seizure that he recorded and posted footage of online. Onision: In Real Life includes scenes from now-deleted YouTube videos that show Onision recording Shiloh in the shower, forcing her to shave her head, and joking about abusing her. By the time their relationship ended for good roughly a year later, Shiloh had been hospitalized for suicide ideation, harassed by Onision’s fans, and developed sepsis following a miscarriage.
“When I found out there were others like me, [it] kind of ended a long 12 years of me thinking that there was nobody else that could understand what I was going through,” Shiloh continued. “I felt a little less crazy for sure.”
Onision’s disturbing pattern of relationships with fans continued. One survivor alleges that the YouTuber and his husband, Kai Avaroe, invited her to visit them and coerced the newly 18-year-old into group sex. Another survivor, who began messaging Avaroe when she was 15 and briefly lived with the couple due to a volatile home life, alleges that Avaroe and Onision sent her explicit photos and made sexual comments about her when she was still a minor. Avaroe, who was also accused of grooming minors with Onision, was 17 when he began dating then 26-year-old Onision. They married a month after Avaroe’s 18th birthday, roughly nine months after Onision and Shiloh broke up for good.
Given his past hosting To Catch A Predator, Hansen’s coverage of Onision was initially met with enthusiasm from commentary creators, YouTube audiences, and the survivors themselves, who hoped that his mainstream influence would push YouTube and law enforcement to take action against Onision. Hansen’s interview series gained popularity and culminated in an attempt to in Washington, prompting the YouTuber to file for a restraining order against creator Daniel Sulzbach (known as Repzion) and . Sulzbach first raised concerns about Onision and his treatment of Shiloh in a . He has since made dozens of videos updating his followers about Jackson’s behavior, as well as exposed several other YouTubers as predators.
Onision dropped the lawsuit against both parties in early 2020.
Have a Seat With Chris Hansen sparked the 2019 survivor-led online campaign #DeplatformPredators, which called for social media sites to ban Onision in an effort to prevent him from directly interacting with his young fans. Onision has since been banned from and for violating terms of service, but he continues to post monetized content on YouTube and OnlyFans. He’s still able to interact with his fans via Twitter and Discord. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department in Washington, where Onision and Avaroe reside, received a flood of phone calls “from around the country” reporting the couple. Newsweek obtained a call log from the police department that states “the FBI has opened a case and are reviewing his [Onision’s] video content” following public concern.
But public favor turned against Hansen as his YouTube series dealt with its own controversy.
Viewers lose trust in Hansen
A survivor sent Hansen’s “web producer,” Vincent Nicotra, her laptop with alleged evidence of her relationship with Onision and Avaroe to send to the FBI. In from Jan. 2020, she said Nicotra never passed it on to law enforcement, further stalling the investigation against her abuser. Viewers and other YouTubers also about Nicotra harassing survivors, copyright striking creators who posted videos criticizing the interview series so their videos were either demonetized or removed, and doxxing those he disagreed with. Hansen was slow to take action against Nicotra, but did eventually fire him and apologized for Nicotra’s misuse of the YouTube copyright striking system. Nicotra was arrested for aggravated harassment in Sept. 2020; Hansen tweeted that there was “not much” he could say as Nicotra was under an active investigation.
A statement released by Hansen’s volunteer livestream moderation team cast further doubt on Hansen’s ability to lead the investigation into Onision’s alleged abuse.
“Ultimately Chris Hansen is well-intentioned and out of his depth of knowledge in regards to the internet and online culture.”
“Chris has also been approached about Vincent and his conduct a number of times, and has said that he would like to fire him. Unfortunately, Chris has said that he also needs to figure out how to replace him so that this can happen,” the moderation team statement said. “We are unsure of the truth of this statement, but are in mutual agreement that ultimately Chris Hansen is well-intentioned and out of his depth of knowledge in regards to the internet and online culture.”
That’s a sentiment widely held in the YouTube commentary community. Most creators who have been covering Onision for years believe that Hansen has good intentions exposing creators like Onision and, more recently, Blood on the Dance Floor singer and alleged child groomer , but that he lacks a fundamental understanding of YouTube itself. Mista G Dubs, a commentary creator, Hansen fumbling Nicotra’s online actions as “‘boomer’ing it up.” Another creator, iNabber, described Hansen as “the guy to take down Onision,” but noted that Hansen’s hesitation to fire Nicotra hurt his own credibility.
“At the end of the day it’s not going to cause any good for this case…The facts are this has damaged Chris Hansen’s investigation,” iNabber said in a recapping the situation. “At the end of the day it was Chris who chose to work with these people, it was Chris who chose to use these methods. Maybe he used these methods before, but YouTube is a whole different thing to a television show.”
Whose story is this to tell?
YouTubers, and consequently their viewers, voiced further skepticism about Hansen’s intentions in covering the story when a profile of the journalist reported that Investigation Discovery “bought the rights” to the Onision story. Mel later clarified that Hansen “signed a deal with Investigation Discovery to do a TV series on the Onision story,” and Hansen tweeted that nobody is “selling rights to a story” in producing this documentary. But he hasn’t divulged the details of his deal with Investigation Discovery, nor how much he’s making from appearing in this series. The clarification added to the profile sparked a debate within the YouTube community about whose story this was to tell in the first place, and the ethical dilemma of raising awareness while profiting off the survivors’ trauma.
No one is “selling rights to a story” to a network. That’s not even how it works. And why would you not explore expanding an important story to a wider audience? Shouldn’t the survivors voices and the quest for justice go beyond YouTube?
— Chris Hansen (@chrishansen) June 14, 2020
Following the laptop debacle and Nicotra’s dismissal, several survivors who were interviewed for Have a Seat With Chris Hansen declined to be interviewed again for the documentary. One about feeling betrayed that Shiloh and Regina, another woman whose involvement with Onision and Avaroe began when she was a minor, agreed to appear in Onision: In Real Life. Another her Twitter followers to stop messaging her about Onision, as she was “trying to distance” herself from that part of her life.
Because of the survivors’ refusal to take part in the documentary, several commentary creators declined to partake as well, including Sulzbach. In a video posted in Sept. 2020, Sulzbach voiced his support for the survivors and his concerns about Hansen’s involvement in the project.
“Chris Hansen isn’t the person who he promised to be in delivering justice to the victims of Onision.”
“Several of the victims said they did not want their stories/trauma told on national TV and I was told their stories would be included regardless of their consent or not,” Sulzbach said in an email to Mashable. “Also Chris Hansen isn’t the person who he promised to be in delivering justice to the victims of Onision. Most of the victims have disassociated with Chris Hansen because they felt lied to, betrayed, and exploited.”
Hansen, to his credit, does acknowledge that he’s an outsider. In a Zoom call with Mashable, he described the backlash to the documentary as a “clash of cultures” between traditional and digital media. It’s the survivors’ “right,” Hansen said, to not have to rehash their traumatic experiences by appearing in the documentary. But Hansen still believes that bringing the story, regardless of whether or not the survivors wanted it told, to a larger audience was “inevitable.”
“There’s been no justice, so why not do this? Why not pursue it at the next level?”
“There’s been no justice, so why not do this? Why not pursue it at the next level?” Hansen said.
He added that the allegations against Onision haven’t been taken as seriously as they should have been over the last 10 years because they were dismissed as YouTube drama instead of potentially criminal abusive behavior. He also blamed YouTubers for keeping Onision relevant by continuing to take his bait and making more content about him, and pointed out that their criticism seems hollow, as many still post monetized videos about the Onision case.
“Part of the reason that some are not taken seriously is because they engage in this drama channel culture where they will do anything and see anything and drag somebody’s name to get clicks and clout,” Hansen continued. “So by attacking the messenger, in this case, they can garner clicks and clout, which means money. So anyone who’s being critical because [we’re] generating some sort of profit from this project is guilty of it by doing what they’re doing.”
Hansen and discovery+, however, do have the added backing and financial security of the television network behind them. YouTubers, for the most part, independently source, record, edit, and secure advertising. And if they’re sued or face a copyright strike, they’re on their own.
Who gets credit?
Although he’s far from the first person to publicly condemn Onision as an abuser, Onision: In Real Life paints Hansen as the whistleblower who brought the story to light. In the first episode, internet culture reporter Steven Asarch appears to credit “Chris Hansen’s YouTube story” as the catalyst for the internet-wide push to deplatform Onision. In a tweet posted after the first episode’s premiere, Asarch clarified that the comment was meant to be sarcastic and that he hoped later episodes would include his reservations about Hansen.
– In my interview, I spoke about why Hansen sucks for legitimate reasons (Gene, lying, etc.) and I hope the doc accurately reflects that.
– Thanks for all the criticism (both positive and negative) but I was essentially just a consultant for a few months and have had no control.
— Steven Asarch (@IAmAsarch) January 4, 2021
Edwin Costa, a YouTuber who posts on the channel Edwins Generation, was the only commentary creator who actually appeared in the documentary. In a responding to the backlash, Costa said he agreed to be interviewed because “if it was any other documentary” asking him to discuss a topic he’s covered as extensively as the Onision story, he “wouldn’t decline.” He also explained that he amended his release so he wouldn’t be included in any promotional materials, but leaked screeners exposed him to online criticism before he could explain his involvement on his “own terms.” Costa added that he criticized Hansen during his interview, as well as expressed reservations about Shiloh, who was embroiled in her own controversy last year for being hostile toward Twitter users who questioned her and the other survivors. But like Asarch, Costa hasn’t seen the third and final episode, which streams next week, and isn’t sure whether any of his criticisms were included.
Ultimately, Hansen’s involvement in the documentary not only soured its reception in the YouTube community, but also kept key voices from being included. Onision: In Real LIfe at least blurs the faces of the survivors who declined to appear in the documentary, but it still includes clips of their appearances on Onision and Kai’s channels, as well as clips of their interviews with Hansen. Though doing so is legally protected under fair use exceptions, many in the YouTube community find it morally reprehensible. The inclusion of those interviews and other clips by creators who declined to be interviewed added to the belief that Hansen, and by extension Investigative Discovery, valued the story over the survivors who were actually part of it.
The series premiere backfired even more when its publicists sent screeners to commentary creators, nearly all of whom declined interviews, and asked them to publicly post their thoughts. Many were predictably critical. Some were offended that the series expected free promotion. For all their criticism of the documentary series and Shiloh’s involvement in it, commentary creators affirmed that they still believed the survivors. Nobody conflated their disapproval of the series with siding with the abuser in question. Onision, though, has been using the backlash against the series to discredit survivors and dismiss their allegations as “hashtag Me Too fake victims.”
“Discovery could have bypassed Chris Hansen entirely,” YouTuber Jaclyn Glenn said in a recent reacting to the documentary. She was interviewed for Have a Seat With Chris Hansen, but like many commentary creators, does not appear in Onision: In Real Life. “He’s not an integral part of the story at all. He came in at the last second, basically hijacked it, and said it was his.”
At the end of the day, Onision: In Real Life will alert a more offline audience to not only Jackson’s behavior, but also to the insidious nature of online predators. It’s far from an ideal delivery, and its reputation will always be damaged by the controversy surrounding its production.
That being said, this documentary will not be the end of the Onision saga. Jackson still has a monetizable online presence through YouTube and OnlyFans, and the reception to this documentary shouldn’t overshadow the push for those platforms to take accountability for enabling him. Hansen told Mashable that any criminal investigation into Onision will likely take months more, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic derails normal procedures, but added that YouTube needs to ban him entirely.
Shiloh said she doesn’t agree with all aspects of “cancel culture,” but acknowledged that it exists for a reason. To protect vulnerable children from ever experiencing what she went through, she added, the onus should be on YouTube itself to hold its creators accountable when their users raise concerns. Until then, she’ll keep sharing her story regardless of the delivery or platform.
“I used to just scream it out into the internetverse, as I used to say, but as soon as I started realizing that I didn’t really owe anybody an explanation, I can genuinely say that I don’t really feel pressured to talk about it,” Shiloh concluded. “It’s mostly now just something that I live with, and something that’s part of my healing [is] talking about it. I’m definitely not going to go quiet about it anytime soon.”