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Who’s afraid of Belgium’s hottest YouTube star?

by editor

Belgium’s brashest influencer has the eyes and ears of half a million YouTube subscribers. But these days he’s more concerned about being on the watchlist of the country’s elite.

24-year-old Acid, the online moniker of Nathan Vandergunst, rose to fame as the country’s most brazen YouTube star. In videos recorded from his bedroom in Blankenberge, Acid shares his thoughts on everything from video games to deep-frying snacks. In the last year, his commentary has become too hard to ignore — including for the country’s judges and politicians.

On Thursday morning, Acid wasn’t broadcasting from his bedroom but rather appearing before the criminal court in Bruges.

The influencer is fighting charges of, among others, defamation, harassment and discrimination, centered on a video he posted in May that revealed the identities of four members of the controversial student club Reuzegom. Some members of the club were convicted in mid-May for their involvement in a brutal hazing ritual that resulted in the death of 20-year-old fellow student Sanda Dia in 2018, receiving fines and community sentences as a punishment.

Acid’s court case highlights the tensions around media ethics, cyberbullying, individuals’ protections and how the world of online influencers is testing established institutions’ nerves.

Most Belgian media outlets had refrained from using the full names of the student club’s members, and rather used their club nicknames, even after the sentencing. “We’re gonna expose people,” Acid yelled in the video — breaking away from the media’s practice — as he later outed four members with their full names and biographical details.

YouTube quickly removed the video under its policy of intimidation and cyberbullying and banned Acid from the platform for a week. Acid was later taken to court by one of the student club members over seven charges — this member was named in the video but was not present at the hazing ritual.

Acid turned to his followers for support. “When the law is no longer a synonym for justice, citizens have the right to know who will be their future politicians, lawyers or dentists,” he wrote on Instagram — leaning into an anti-establishment sentiment that springs from the fact that the student club’s members are often children of wealthy or powerful Belgian individuals or families, including a provincial governor and restaurant entrepreneurs.

Freedom of speech

Acid started broadcasting in his bedroom in the Belgian coastal town of Blankenberge, recording typical teen videos on gaming, skating and snowboarding and the occasional school or girlfriend update. His videos slowly turned more edgy and brazen, one outing his dad as gay online and one telling his followers that they should buy merchandise “with the stolen credit card of their parents.”

Growing more popular, he turned into a flag bearer of a generation of influencers that have built up their presence on social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok but that have now expanded into full-blown media brands running lucrative side hustles like clothing lines and long-feature films.

As the court proceedings inched closer, Acid and his lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge — one of Belgium’s most famous criminal attorneys — have been playing the freedom of speech card.

“You have the right to express your opinion, to make it polemic, to put it sharply, to even shock [people] when it comes to topics relevant for the whole of society,” his lawyer told POLITICO, adding that the case is an example of “a world upside down.”

The YouTuber Acid (Nathan Vandergunst) | Kurt Desplenter/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

In his last video ahead of his hearing, Acid stressed that he only read what was already shared by the media — with the only difference of adding names and pictures.

While Acid and plaintiffs fight out the legal battle over fundamental rights, the influencer is leveraging his online persona, spinning a controversy around himself into a wider societal debate that transcends traditional media coverage. He appeared on stage at one of Belgium’s largest youth festivals, Pukkelpop, in August, ending his short guest performance by shouting at the crowd: “Fuck Reuzegom, and justice for Sanda Dia.”

The influencer knows what he’s up to — he’s won fights in the past by leveraging his online audience.

Last year, the Belgian federal government threatened to impose fines on him after he didn’t comply with a law that required some content creators to register as companies and to list the company’s official registration numbers, address, and e-mail address on their social media accounts. Acid waged war against the rule, saying it threatened his privacy. He eventually forced the government to change the rules.

In his most recent video, Acid said to be ready for another fight, telling his followers about his day in court: “Keep a moment of silence in your fucking class or something like that.”

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