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How Stranger Things’ preteen fans went to war with the EU

The Guardian logo The Guardian 19/01/2019 Alex Hern

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - DECEMBER 08: (L-R) Actors Noah Schnapp, Caleb McLaughlin and actress Sadie Sink pose after the Stranger Things panel during day 2 of Argentina Comic Con 2018 at Costa Salguero on December 08, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images for NETFLIX) © 2018 Getty Images BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - DECEMBER 08: (L-R) Actors Noah Schnapp, Caleb McLaughlin and actress Sadie Sink pose after the Stranger Things panel during day 2 of Argentina Comic Con 2018 at Costa Salguero on December 08, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images for NETFLIX) A subclause of a European Union directive has inadvertently prompted a spate of preteen mass hysteria, after fans of popular TV shows became convinced that Brussels legislation is responsible for a mysterious purge of their favourite meme accounts.

“I had heard about ‘article 13’ and been warned that lots of Instagram accounts were going to be deleted,” said 12-year-old Sylvie, from London. “I didn’t really take it that seriously, but when I woke up to lots of deleted accounts I realised it was a big deal.”

“Article 13” refers to a subclause of the proposed EU directive on copyright in the digital single market.

One draft of that clause will impose regulation on “online content sharing service providers”, requiring them to work harder to prevent copyright infringement on their sites.

Internet giants are battling against the legislation in a very public lobbying campaign, spreading the word that memes – defined by the Collins dictionary as an image or video that is spread widely online, often altered for humorous effect – could vanish from the internet if it is passed.

Stranger Things 3 poster © Netflix Stranger Things 3 poster

But their warnings may have been slightly too effective, prompting fears among young people that the EU is planning to remove much-loved parts of the internet – a lobbying campaign that eventually filtered down to Sylvie and users like her.

Sylvie’s mum, Hannah, said her daughter was on the verge of tears when she, and the rest of the Instagram community she is a part of, concluded that their fears were coming true.

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Sylvie is part of the Stranger Things fandom, a close-knit collection of Instagram users linked by their love of the Netflix teen horror series. They share “edits” – videos, stills and gifs based on footage from the show which they loop, cut with a new soundtrack or overlay with text. Fansites such as hers are built around creative but unlicensed reuse of copyrighted material.

Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US-based not-for-profit organisation that fights for internet rights, said the proposed article 13 “will subject huge swaths of online expression to interception and arbitrary censorship” and is “a catastrophe for freedom of expression”.

Canadian science fiction author Cory Doctorow speaks at the Re:publica Internet conference in Berlin, Germany, 06 May 2015. The media convention, organized with the slogan 'finding europe,' takes place from 05 to 07 May 2015 in Berlin. Photo: BRITTA PEDERSEN/dpa | usage worldwide   (Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images) Canadian science fiction author Cory Doctorow speaks at the Re:publica Internet conference in Berlin, Germany, 06 May 2015. The media convention, organized with the slogan 'finding europe,' takes place from 05 to 07 May 2015 in Berlin. Photo: BRITTA PEDERSEN/dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Of the three current versions of the directive – which will be merged into one next week – opponents have the biggest problem with the one written by the European parliament.

Article 13 of that draft would require YouTube and other sites that allow user-generated content to build tools that proactively block anything that appears to infringe on copyright. They would face fines for whatever slips through the net.

“YouTube would be forced to block millions of videos (existing and new ones) in the European Union,” the company said. “It could drastically limit the content that one can upload to the platform in Europe.”

But the deletion of a Stranger Things fan account last week did not have anything to do with article 13. For one thing, the directive has not passed into law: it is awaiting a “trilogue”, where the EU internally negotiates between the three versions of the draft directive produced by the parliament, commission and council. That should happen on 21 January, before another parliamentary vote will approve or reject the final version of the text.

But even though it is not in law yet, article 13 is well known among communities such as Sylvie’s because of a tremendously successful lobbying effort, primarily from YouTube, that filtered from the corridors of power to the everyday discourse of children on social media.

Online content creators, who are concerned about the threat to their livelihoods, have also mobilised. Filmmakers such as Philip DeFranco, who provides a daily news roundup to his 6 million subscribers, and channels such as FBE, whose 18 million subscribers watch videos of people reacting to other videos, have produced their own videos explaining, in an activist fashion, the pitfalls of the proposed directive.

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 22: Philip DeFranco speaks onstage during the 'SuperSession - The Creator Business Model Grows Up' panel at the 9th Annual VidCon at Anaheim Convention Center on June 22, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images) © 2018 Getty Images ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 22: Philip DeFranco speaks onstage during the 'SuperSession - The Creator Business Model Grows Up' panel at the 9th Annual VidCon at Anaheim Convention Center on June 22, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

A search on Instagram for the #article13 tag reveals image posts warning that the law is “gonna happen” on 22 January, and that when it does, “apps like Tumblr, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube will be blocked from people in Europe”.

That is how Sylvie found out, she said – “People were posting about it and signing petitions” – and though she did not fully understand what the directive entailed, she was close enough.

“I think that it means no one can take any copyrighted material off YouTube or any websites and all content has to be our own.”

Motivating an engaged user base to fight proxy battles is an increasingly popular tactic in tech. After Uber lost its licence to operate in London in 2017, the company launched an online petition within hours, emailed it out to its passengers, and received a quarter of a million signatures by the end of the day.

KRAKOW, POLAND - 2019/01/14: Uber logo is seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) © 2019 SOPA Images KRAKOW, POLAND - 2019/01/14: Uber logo is seen on an android mobile phone. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But engaging teens and preteens to do the lobbying is a less common tactic. YouTube, for its part, says the focus has been on adult users of the site. The company says all its advertising was targeted to adults aged over 18, although it concedes that demographic targeting on the internet is an inexact science and that some children may have been shown the campaign.

It argues that many of those children would have come to care about article 13 anyway, citing a petition on Change.org signed by almost 4.5 million Europeans.

“The European parliament version of article 13 will create unintended consequences that would have a profound impact on the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of creators, artists and others employed in the creative economy,” the company said in a statement.

“We believe we have a responsibility to YouTube creators and Europeans that come to our platform to make them aware of the possible effects of the European copyright reform.”

Whether or not that campaign works will become clearer from Monday, when the three versions of the directive will begin to be merged into one final proposal.

In the meantime, Sylvie has closed her Stranger Things fan account and created a new account for following multiple fandoms at once. Her latest post is an edit of the Beatles.

Gallery: News pictures of the week (Photo Services)

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