This popular YouTuber launched a campaign to help kids in Gaza and other conflict zones. Then came the angry comments

In her videos, Ms Rachel’s whimsical voice is like a balm for many unyielding toddlers. “Hiiii, heeeello,” she chirps while waving cheerfully in social media clips that feature upbeat nursery rhymes, dances and language lessons for preschool children.

But last week, her message to her more than 6.5 million combined followers on Instagram and TikTok was anything but. Instead of her usual smiling, clapping and cheering, the popular social media creator, whose full name is Rachel Griffin Accurso, was in tears.

“The bullying is so bad. It’s so bad. But I can handle this,” she said in a video posted to her accounts last Thursday. It showed a closeup of an emotional Accurso in a dark room, wiping her eyes.

“That is who I am. I love my neighbor. I love every child,” she added. “Imagining for one second what a mom is going through unable to feed her child or give her child clean water or keep her child safe.”

The backlash had started four days earlier, after Accurso announced a campaign to raise money for children in several war-torn parts of the world, including Gaza. She began receiving angry comments on her posts, asking why she wasn’t also trying to help victims of Hamas’ deadly October 7 attack on Israel.

“You should be for all children not just the children in gaza. Do you not care what hamas did to all the innocent jewish children october 7th???” one Instagram comment said.

“You mention the children of Gaza in your video … how about the children held hostage? Do you care about all children?” another commenter posted on TikTok.

In the caption on her tearful May 16 video, Accurso reiterated her concern for all the world’s children.

“Palestinian children, Israeli children, children in the US – Muslim, Jewish, Christian children – all children, in every country,” she wrote. “Not one is excluded.”

Her clarification was not enough to quell backlash from commenters who accused her of disregarding the pain of Israeli children. CNN has reached out to Accurso for comment.

Between the polarizing Israel-Hamas war and fiery recent protests on US college campuses, some social media influencers have felt pressure to speak up. But the Ms Rachel episode is a reminder that even the most innocuous influencers can face pushback when they wade into a thorny issue like the Middle East.

She raised $50,000 within hours for children affected by war

Accurso is an educator who uses videos filled with songs and games to help toddlers and parents navigate the early childhood years. Her series, “Songs for Littles,” features catchy, educational tunes that are popular with both parents and young children.

Her videos are a hit with 9.8 million subscribers on YouTube, and span a myriad of topics, including learning how to talk and read.

She announced her fundraising campaign in a video posted May 12 to her TikTok and Instagram accounts, offering to make Cameos — paid personalized video messages that a celebrity can film on request.

Accurso said her earnings from the videos will go to Save the Children’s emergency fund for kids affected by war and mentioned Gaza along with Sudan, Ukraine, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Hopefully I can make little ones smile by giving them a personal video and then the money will go to help more children living in unimaginable circumstances,” she said in the video. “Children should never experience the horrors of war. These are grave violations of their human rights. Children should be protected.”

Rachel Griffin Accurso records a show last year in New York. The YouTube star is best known for "Songs for Littles," an online video series that draws millions of views. - OK McCausland/The New York Times/Redux
Rachel Griffin Accurso records a show last year in New York. The YouTube star is best known for "Songs for Littles," an online video series that draws millions of views. - OK McCausland/The New York Times/Redux

A day later, she posted another message on the horrifying effects of war. “We should be ashamed of how children around the world are suffering,” she wrote.

Cameo requests and money flooded in. Within hours, she’d raised $50,000 from 500 requests for personal videos, she said. “Every penny on my end will go to [Save the Children] to help children facing unimaginable circumstances,” she wrote. CNN has reached out to Save the Children for comment.

Accurso then paused the Cameo requests, saying she needed time to film the 500 personalized videos before she could accept any more.

Then came the backlash. A few days later, she posted the tearful video, with the comments turned off on Instagram. Instead of her trademark pink T-shirt and denim dungarees, she was barely visible in dim lighting and clutching what appeared to be a blanket.

She did not go into details about the bullying she said she’s received and has disabled comments on YouTube and some Instagram posts.

She also received supportive messages. “This is a moral litmus test and you’re on the right side,” one commenter posted on her TikTok. “Stay strong.”

Another added: “You are the Mr. Rogers to our babies’ generation. Thank you for using your platform in such an influential way.”

Divisive issues can be tricky for social media influencers, expert says

Hamas-led militants killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7 and took some 250 hostages into Gaza. In response, Israel launched a war on Hamas in Gaza that continues seven months later.

More than 14,000 children have been killed in Gaza since the war started in October, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. About 12,000 more children have been wounded and thousands remain missing, it says.

“Rafah is a city of children,” UNICEF spokesperson James Elder said this month, referring to the Palestinian city in southern Gaza. “If we define safety — as international humanitarian law says we must — as freedom from bombardment, as well as access to safe water, sufficient food, shelter and medicine — then there is nowhere safe on the Gaza Strip to go to.”

Accurso is one of a number of social media influencers who have used their platforms to raise funds as the humanitarian crisis unfolds in Gaza. She describes herself as an ambassador for Save the Children.

Giselle Ugarte, an online performance and personal branding coach, says joining conversations on such a divisive issue can be tricky for a social media influencer like Accurso, whose brand is built around kids.

“Ms Rachel is someone who is looked at as an educational resource for young children, a neutral force and a safe place, separated from any of the dangers of the outside world,” she said. “Parents want to feel that they can step away from the screen and not have to worry about their children consuming content outside of her traditional programming.”

Ugarte said she advises influencers to assess whether wading into a polarizing issue aligns with their mission and brand, and to first “recognize the potential backlash, consequences or perhaps even physical dangers.”

Accurso has said she plans to resume her Cameo fundraising campaign. And she’s back to pleading for help for the children of Gaza.

“I saw a picture of two babies in Gaza and their thighs are like this small,” she said in a post Tuesday, choking back tears and making a circle with her thumb and forefinger. “We can’t let children starve. That is not who we are.”

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