How the birth announcement of YouTube star Shane Dawson turned into a trending controversy

One of YouTube’s biggest stars became a major internet trend this week when his first children — twin baby boys — were born via surrogate. 

Earlier this week, Shane Dawson and his husband, Ryland Adams, announced on Instagram the birth of their sons, saying in a post that their birthday, Dec. 7, was the “best day of our entire lives and nothing else will ever compare.”

But instead of receiving public celebration, Dawson, who has 19.1 million subscribers on YouTube, and Adams faced a backlash — a phenomenon that other influencers have faced as a consequence of being so enmeshed in the web.

Dawson has had his old content, including racist skits and controversial podcasts, resurfaced and used against him for years.

Dawson is considered an original YouTuber, one of the platform’s first and biggest homegrown stars. Since 2020, however, his reputation has soured, following a series of issues ranging from his old content to how he interacted with children online. Throughout his career, Dawson has made offensive jokes about child sex abuse and pedophilia that have come back to haunt him. 

On top of those discussions resurfacing, Dawson and Adams’ birth announcement quickly became fodder for anti-gay pundits and anti-surrogacy advocates, all fomented by right-wing influencers who have a history of mocking LGBTQ people.

The viral criticism of something that’s usually a joyous occasion is emblematic of what aging influencers now face when they go through major life events. Their digital histories, oftentimes full of offensive or out-of-date content, frequently become viral topics of outrage, and many must consider how their family members might become involved in brewing culture wars. 

Following the birth announcement, social media erupted with conversations about Dawson’s fitness to parent children, drawing on his past statements. 

As part of his “shock jock” YouTube persona, Dawson often pushed the line. He made documentary-style videos about other YouTubers like Jake Paul, commented on conspiracy theories and posted reaction-style content. Some of his older videos include racist imagery like blackface that later resurfaced and that Dawson apologized for, something that mainstream comedians like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have done as well. 

But the content that earned the greatest scrutiny is his crass jokes about children. In one case, Dawson asked a teen fan to twerk while filming a video on the now-defunct Omegle website. On several podcasts, Dawson made statements about children and pedophilia, at one point offering a “justification of pedophilia.” 

In a June 2020 video addressing the controversies, Dawson denied that he had serious intent behind any of his jokes. 

“It is something I did for shock value or because I thought it was funny,” Dawson said in the video. “It’s all gross and I promise that is not real. That is not me. Have I done sketches where kids were saying crazy things? Yes. Do I regret it? Yes.”

Representatives for Dawson and Adams did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although Dawson and Adams updated their followers on YouTube in the lead up to becoming fathers, they have yet to remark on the backlash to the announcement. 

An X post about the announcement from the account Pop Crave has more than 30 million views, according to the platform.

Some replies to the post beg someone “save those poor babies.” Others ask how Dawson is “allowed to ‘adopt’ a surrogate child” — a post that, like several others, conflates adoption with gestational surrogacy. Others suggested child services be called. Some criticized the practice of surrogacy while other posts appeared to be anti-LGBTQ.

“There was a time in YouTube where so much problematic behavior was allowed to go under the radar for so long,” said Paige Christie, a U.K. YouTuber who creates video essays and has commented on Dawson and his controversies for years. “Now there are more campaigns to remove people from platforms.” 

Other YouTubers have received sharp criticism when announcing their pregnancies and the birth of their children. YouTuber Trisha Paytas — also considered an original YouTuber — received similar comments when she announced she was pregnant with her daughter, Malibu Barbie Paytas-Hacmon. Ahead of Malibu Barbie’s birth, users on Reddit suggested that they would call child protective services. 

But the fervor around Dawson’s babies took on a new level of virality as various factions turned the news into culture war ammunition around the issues of surrogacy and LGBTQ parenting.

Conservative personalities, who are known for engaging with social issues, such as Ian Miles Cheong and the account @EndWokeness, shared the birth announcement to their followers. @EndWokeness, which describes itself as “mocking wokeness” and has previously made posts that appear to be anti-LGBTQ, accused Dawson and Adams of “buying” their sons.

Jong, who has also mocked LGBTQ people recently, asked his followers for their thoughts on the matter. In the replies, one person said they “felt bad” for babies who were “ripped from their mother and given to two dudes.” Another called the birth “child trafficking.” One said it was “disturbing.” Still, some said they took little issue with the way Dawson and Adams’ children were born. 

Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California, noted that Dawson’s past statements and his influence made him susceptible to attacks. “Shane Dawson not only is a great target if you’re angry about any variety of issues that he’s addressed,” she said, “but also if you want publicity for your opinion.”

Some of the posts referred to Dawson and Adams as “buying” or “purchasing” babies from women. Others said the couple wanted male babies because they’re pedophiles. Many posts insinuated or stated that Dawson shouldn’t be allowed to have children because he is married to a man.

Surrogacy has long been a subject of debate and remains controversial outside of the United States, according to Doug NeJaime, a professor at Yale Law School. 

NeJaime said that, in some cases, the pushback in situations like Dawson’s could be linked to homophobia more than an actual interest in debating surrogacy itself. 

“There’s arguments against these two-father families or children being raised without a mother, and so some of the conservative critics of same-sex parenting are also critics of surrogacy,” NeJaime said.

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