A virtual preliminary hearing for Ruby Franke — the family vlogger charged with six counts of felony child abuse — turned into a viral spectacle Friday after more than 1,000 people tried to join the livestream and dozens of people flocked to TikTok and YouTube to share video livestreams, recaps and analysis.
It’s become the latest legal case — joining Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski crash trial and the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial — to captivate audiences online and inspire a flurry of nonexpert takes across social media. On TikTok, the hashtag #rubyfranke saw 3,000 posts and more than 300 million views in the last seven days. Search interest in Franke also spiked on YouTube the day of the hearing, according to Google Trends.
While Franke’s not an A-list celebrity, her hearing drew attention from those curious to witness the dramatic fall of a once-popular YouTuber, as well as those outraged that a “momfluencer” who built a following touting her parenting online is now in a jumpsuit for allegedly abusing her own children.
The intense irony of this case, some commentators say, is bringing renewed attention to a dark underside of family vlogging channels. In recent months, a growing chorus of voices online have spoken out about the dangers of “sharenting,” or when content creators share their children’s lives on social media for profit. In August, Illinois passed the country’s first law protecting child influencers. Advocates are hoping other states will follow.
The Utah-based Franke grew an audience of over 2.5 million viewers with her now-removed family channel “8 Passengers,” which she launched in 2015 with her husband, Kevin. It featured their six children. She frequently collaborated on controversial parenting and relationship advice videos with Jodi Hildebrandt and her life coaching service, ConneXions.
Franke and Hildebrandt were arrested on Aug. 30 and were each charged with six counts of felony child abuse by the Washington County Attorney’s Office. The arrest came after law enforcement found one of Franke’s children with open wounds after escaping from Hildebrandt’s home. One of Franke’s other children was found in similar malnourished condition at Hildebrandt’s home. Four of the six children are minors, who have now been placed under Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services.
Attorneys for Hildebrandt and Franke did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
“The fact that she [Franke] went from this high peak of being YouTube-famous and being this quote-unquote parenting guru, going from that extreme to the extreme allegations of aggravated child abuse … and then seeing her in her jumpsuit in prison,” said Bonnie King, a TikTok and YouTube commentator who focuses on true crime and family vlogging content. “It’s just such an extreme fall from where she was online. I think that draws a lot of people’s fascination with the case.”
King tried and failed to join the live hearing herself — so she followed along by joining the livestream of a YouTuber who gave verbal updates on what he was hearing from the virtual courtroom. She then made her own viral TikTok video commenting on what happened.
Laurel Cook, a social marketing researcher and associate professor at West Virginia University, said the shocking nature of Franke’s case is pushing the wider public to be more skeptical of parents who profit from using their children for content.
“What’s really a silver lining in all this is that a lot of people are putting in free hours as quote-unquote internet sleuths and bringing new attention to a lot of the content Ruby has already provided freely,” Cook said. “So now all of us, including myself, are rewatching this content with a new perspective. And that’s making us even more shocked in light of the recent allegations.”
Now all of us, including myself, are rewatching this content with a new perspective. And that’s making us even more shocked in light of the recent allegations.
-Laurel Cook, a social marketing researcher and associate professor at West Virginia University
Many commentators online noted that child influencers don’t have the same rights and regulations that child actors typically do.
“A lot of people not only are recognizing the importance of this and how this needs to take precedence because these kids are the pioneers of a new form of cruelty against children in the child labor industry,” said YouTube commentator Tezzmosis, who prefers to go by his social media handle to keep his full identity private.
Tezzmosis relayed information from the hearing in a live commentary video, which amassed a modest following of several hundred viewers at a time throughout the three-hour stream.
He said he believes much of the public interest in the case comes from the clear disconnect it illustrates between the “perfect image” a parenting influencer can present online versus their family’s reality behind the scenes.
“They’ve been on [authorities’] radar for a couple of years,” he said, referring to the news that police had previously received and responded to reports made about Franke’s alleged treatment of her children.
“But being from an affluent family and having this notoriety in such a way, I think it was so hard for people to believe that something so bad could be going on beyond the surface,” Tezzmosis added.
Both King and Tezzmosis said they plan to continue their social media coverage of Franke’s court appearances to the best of their ability, whether by attending the hearings themselves or following along with updates from news sources.
A judge ruled last week that Franke and Hildebrandt will continue to be held without bail until their next scheduled court appearance on Sept. 21.