8 Passengers and Cancel Culture: The War Over the Internet’s Most Controversial Family

·15-min read

RUBY FRANKE WAS at her Springville, Utah, home baking sourdough bread when Child Protective Services came knocking on her door. She and her family had just returned from a camping trip in the summer of 2020, and after cleaning up the gear and sending her husband off to work, she plunked her youngest daughter, Eve, at the kitchen table, gave her a puzzle and a granola bar, and started kneading dough.

“I remember that morning very well,” Franke told TheWrap. “These officers — they were two ladies — said there had been several complaints about child abuse and child neglect. Could they come in and spend some time?”

The officers hovered for a couple of hours, surveying Franke’s spacious home just south of Provo, poking around her pantry and other areas, and interviewing each of Franke’s six kids separately. When they finally finished, no charges were filed. Indeed, according to Franke, the CPS officers were so impressed with her parenting skills, before leaving they supposedly asked for child-rearing tips. “They both said they were going to go home and make some changes on how they were parenting,” she claimed.

Franke never did discover who called in that complaint to CPS. But it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. After all, the list of suspects is only about 2 million subscribers long.

For the last six years, Ruby, 39, her husband, Kevin, 42, and their six kids (Shari, 17, Chad, 15, Abby, 13, Julie, 11, Russell, 8 and 6-year-old Eve) have been the stars of 8 Passengers, one of the most popular — and controversial — homegrown family video series on YouTube. The show, which details the Frankes’ sometimes mundane, sometimes wildly dramatic daily lives, has been clicked on more than a billion times, attracting millions of subscribers who see the videos as an inspirational peek into lives of a loving, devoutly Mormon brood as they deal with common household glitches like forgotten school lunches and sibling rivalries.

But to their critics — and there are scores of them on the internet — Ruby and Kevin Franke are evil incarnate. Abusive to their kids, hungry for fame, craven in their exploitation of their children, they are, in the words of one YouTube detractor, “grotesque examples of bad parenting.”

The anti-Frankes have curated entire YouTube clip shows dedicated to trashing 8 Passengers (or “6 Prisoners,” as one calls the channel) and tracking its cruelest moments, like, say, the time Ruby punished one of her sons by taking away his bed for seven months. Or the time she made Eve cry by brandishing scissors and threatening to snip off the head of one of her stuffed animals. Or when she insisted on videotaping (and posting) her intimate mother-daughter talk with Shari about the teenager’s first menstrual period, despite Shari’s obvious on-camera horror.

The fracas over the Frankes isn’t completely new — it’s been bubbling around the edges of the internet since the family started regularly vlogging in 2015. But over the last year and a half, as snippets of the show began spreading beyond YouTube, going viral on TikTok, it’s heated up into a full-blown battle royale, complete with casualties, or at least sponsorship losses. In the spring of 2020, Clorox and a slew of other advertisers, nervous about all the negative attention, pulled their support from the Frankes, a huge blow to a family that by some estimates has raked in $2.5 million from the show.

8 Passengers
8 Passengers

From Ruby’s point of view, it’s a classic case of cancel culture run amok, with her family caught in the crosshairs of a small but social media-savvy gang of teenage harassers who, she insists, have twisted her videos out of context in an orchestrated campaign to destroy the show. All, she believes, because they are threatened by her tough-love approach to motherhood.

“The reason we got canceled was because I was demonstrating, as I have done from day one, what a responsible mother looks like,” she says during a two-hour Zoom call with TheWrap, with husband Kevin by her side. “And it scared the living bejesus out of these kids who do not want to be held accountable. So that is the motive for the hate being thrown at me. I’m the antidote to their acting out, and they know it.”

Of course, cancel culture is a loaded term. There’s no denying that at times it’s been an Orwellian scourge, destroying lives and careers over frequently imaginary thought crimes or even old tweets from high school. But there’s another side to cancel culture that’s less discussed in the media, one that goes by different names. Some call it justice. Others prefer the word karma. Still others, personal accountability. And every so often, when the stars align just right, people get exactly what they deserve.

Which side do the Frankes belong on? Are they child abusers or cancel culture roadkill? Like so much these days, the answer depends entirely on your point of view.

ONE OF THE VERY FIRST 8 Passengers videos was Eve’s gender reveal party. As if living in a real-life “Truman Show,” the Frankes’ youngest has spent her entire life growing up in front of cameras, with millions witnessing her every developmental milestone. But even before Eve’s birth, the Frankes had been flirting with vlogging. The couple — who met in college in Utah and married in 2000, when they were both in their early 20s — have been sporadically posting videos since at least 2012, when they taped themselves at a rally supporting fast food chain Chick-fil-A ’s anti-gay marriage crusade (“This is us, waiting in line at Chick-fil-A , because we’re supporting marriage between man and woman,” Ruby announces into the camera, in a clip that would later come back to haunt her).

For the most part, Ruby has always been the one running the show; Kevin, a professor of civil engineering at Brigham Young University, pops in from time to time but is largely a supporting player. In the early years, before Ruby perfected her shooting and editing skills, her vlog was rough around the edges — it was basically a collection of personal home movies that she was storing online, not entirely aware (or at least not much concerned) that she was making them publicly available to the entire world.

But the family obviously had online charisma and her home movies began to attract a small group of devoted followers. Before long, she was posting three or four videos a week, of trips to the zoo, doctor’s appointments, homeschooling sessions and shopping excursions. “They were just a jumbled mess, really,” she told TheWrap. “But people started liking them. It became apparent to me very quickly that people were interested in knowing how to respond to children. It became, for me, a platform of teaching, demonstrating mothers in action, the power of mothers.”

By 2019, that teaching platform was nearing a million subscribers and the Frankes’ phone was ringing off the hook with sponsors. They were well on their way to becoming one of the most successful family vlogs on YouTube. And that’s when the first scandal broke. It involved a clip of Ruby sitting in her car and responding to a text message from Eve’s kindergarten teacher. “She said that Eve did not pack a lunch today and can I bring a lunch over to the school,” Ruby all but sneered into the camera. “I know that her teacher is uncomfortable with her being hungry and not having lunch and it would ease her discomfort if I came to the school with lunch. But I responded and just said, ‘Eve is responsible for making her lunches in the morning.’” Then, turning the tough love dial up to 11, she added, “Hopefully, nobody gives her food.”

Today, in 2021, Ruby and Kevin peddle back a bit on the incident, now claiming that the real reason she didn’t bring lunch to Eve — who was just 5 at the time — was that the school was 45 minutes away and that by the time she got there the day would nearly be over. But, of course, that’s not what she says on the clip, and the reaction online was ferocious.

“Before that, they were mostly staying within their niche on YouTube,” recalled J Aubrey, a 21-year-old YouTube documentarian in Texas whose 2020 video examining the controversies swirling around the Frankes has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. “Until that point, the only people that were familiar with the Frankes were the ones who were interested in family vlogs. But then these incidents started to gain notoriety on other channels and other media and it started to catch the attention of people like me. That’s when people started to comb through their earlier content.”

That earlier content included the clip from the 2012 Chick-fil-A rally, which added homophobia to the internet’s growing lists of grievances with the family. The couple now says they were simply supporting the chicken chain’s right to support causes without being boycotted by the public. “A company should have the freedom to contribute to whatever charitable cause they want without fear of repercussions from a mob burning their store down,” Kevin argued over the Zoom call. Ruby added ruefully, “Our very first encounter with cancel culture and we didn’t even know what cancel culture was.”

YouTube
YouTube

Not long after Eve’s lunch debacle, the Frankes threw more gasoline on the fire when they posted a sit-down video, in August 2019, in which they explained why then-14-year-old Chad had been absent from their summer vlogs. He’d been expelled from school — the reasons why are never fully revealed — and as punishment was spending 10 weeks at the Anasazi Foundation Wilderness Therapy Program, an outdoor intervention camp that, according to its website, was designed to help 13- to 17-year-old troubled youth as well as young adults up to 25 “with depression, substance abuse and other emotional or behavioral concerns.”

The family’s critics pounced on it as further evidence of the Frankes’ brutal parenting style. Ruby and Kevin, though, were having none of it. “We need to face hardships and pain to develop resilience and grit, that’s what leads to success in life,” Kevin defended their parenting decisions in one video. “If we make things easy on our kids all the time, they’re going to grow up to be snowflakes.”

When Chad finally got sprung from Anasazi, there was a touching reunion episode, but the honeymoon didn’t last long. About a month later, he landed in hot water again, after pranking his younger brother Russell by waking him in the middle of the night and telling him the family was going to Disneyland (they weren’t). That’s how Chad lost bed privileges for seven months, an out-of-the-box punishment that sparked yet another round of online rage over the Franke family’s values.

This time, though, it also caught fire on TikTok, where snippets of the show — taken out of context, according to Ruby — were being posted by the family’s detractors, which acted as a social media accelerant, inflaming the Franke fury even more. Stories questioning Ruby and Kevin’s parenting choices even began popping up in the mainstream press (“YouTuber Parents are Accused of Child Abuse,” reported the Daily Mail).

“It’s hilarious that Ruby now says her clips were taken out of context,” said Aubrey, who included numerous 8 Passenger clips in his own YouTube docu-video on the Frankes. “I mean, in any context, they’re abhorrent. You can’t tell me that there’s any level of context that could possibly justify taking away your child’s bed for seven months and making him sleep on a beanbag chair.”

The Frankes fought back, hiring lawyers and sending cease-and-desist letters to several of the YouTubers who’d been attacking them on YouTube (“Surprisingly, not me,” Aubrey noted), with at least two channels removing anti-Frankes content. But in some ways, all the controversy was great for business. The more people fumed, the more subscribers the Frankes collected, with the show at one point soaring to 2.5 million followers (it’s currently dipped a bit to 2.3 million). At its peak, 8 Passengers was puling around 200,000 views a day, generating by some estimates $1,600 a day in advertising revenue, or $584,000 a year.

But by the spring of 2020, as the heat continued to rise on the family, clicks finally started to slip (viewership is currently averages 72,000 per day) and nervous sponsors began backing away. In addition to Clorox, Norton, Sargento, Narwal and Ruggable all canceled their deals. And as sponsors and viewers vanished, the show’s value plummeted; at one point its ad rate was as high as $11 per thousand viewers. Today, it’s below a dollar.

“Sponsorships were 90% of the business, and that has gone away,” Ruby said. Kevin nodded in agreement. “I never cease to be amazed at how intense and ferocious these individuals in these cancel mobs are,” he said. “They will watch your videos for two hours straight and take note of every ad that pops up and reach out to every one of those advertisers and threaten them with boycotts.”

Then came the unkindest cut of all; a Change.com petition demanding that Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services investigate the Frankes started circulating in May 2020. It quickly drew more than 16,000 signatures. Apparently, a lot of those folks were also calling CPS directly. “They basically said they were getting around a thousand complaints a day,” Ruby said. “It was taking up more [of their] time answering the phone than it would to just come out and pay a visit.”

BEYOND CHAD’S BED privileges and who should be responsible for packing Eve’s lunch, there are bigger issues at play with the Franke family. In some ways, the controversy over their parenting style could be seen as just another blue state-red state culture clash over how to properly rear children. But it’s also something brand new — a debate over what parents should or shouldn’t be allowed to do with their kids on the internet. Do children have any rights of their own? Do they have any authority over their own image? Or do their moms and dads have unlimited powers?

Many of the YouTubers throwing shade at the Frankes, like Aubrey, take pains to blur out the faces of the Franke children when they show clips from 8 Passengers. It’s one of their slyest and most effective attacks, a none-too-subtle reminder that the Franke kids have zero privacy on their parent’s vlog. There’s certainly not a lot of blurring happening on the series, where cameras seem to be shoved in the children’s faces round the clock, despite their frequent pleas to turn them off.

The Frankes have said that they regularly consult with mental health experts on how to maintain the emotional well-being of their now famous children. But according to the kids themselves, it’s not going so great. On camera, some of the older Frankes have complained that the show has left them bullied and friendless at school, at times publicly humiliated. And that’s only what they’ve been willing to admit on the show, with their mom taping them.

“For children and adolescents, lack of privacy due to being vlogged about online can lead to low self-worth, stunting of emotional development, and expressing negative-seeking behavior as a means to validate their worth,” said Karina Baltazar-Duran, a marriage and family therapist at Thriveworks, a national chain of family counseling services. “The minute someone begins vlogging about their families, privacy is out of the window and anyone and everyone can have an opinion on what’s right or wrong for this family, including me.”

Aubrey offers a similar take. “We’re used to dealing with children in Hollywood getting exposed to the limelight at an early age and we know that there can be dangerous ramifications for that,” he said. “But with family vlogging, since it’s such a new medium, we don’t really know what the effects might be on a young developing mind. I’m not an expert, but you don’t need to be one to know that there’s something wrong with this, that it can’t lead to anything good for these kids.”

For the older siblings, at least, relief is on the horizon; Ruby has made it clear on video that her “kids are not welcome to come live with me after they’re 18 — I am very straightforward about that.” But the younger ones still have years left in the goldfish bowl, as their mother continues to post several videos a week. But since the scandals and sponsorship cancellations, Ruby has pulled her lens back a bit.

“As far as the content,” she said, “I’ve been more aware of how things can be twisted. I haven’t talked [as much] about holding children accountable, which is something I used to talk a lot about. You get more of a [negative] reaction when you talk about holding children responsible than you would if you talked about religion or politics. It’s so triggering. People don’t want to hear it,” she continued, getting more and more worked up over what she sees as the unfairness of cancel culture. “Why is that?”

Still, one YouTuber’s injustice is another’s comeuppance. “Cancel culture has become this term used for anything,” Aubrey said. “It used to describe people who had been unjustly thrown to the wolves for something inconsequential, like maybe a tweet from ten years ago. But the Frankes losing their sponsorships, that’s all their own doing. They don’t really have a case that they’re victims. They did this to themselves.”

Benjamin Svetkey contributed to this story.

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