Science & Technology



Video-greeting company says it's 'safer than it's ever been' after celebs duped into taping anti-Semitic messages

Tracy Swartz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

CHICAGO -- Cameo, a company that allows people to pay for personalized video greetings from athletes, celebrities and social media influencers, has been having a banner year.

The two-year-old company recently raised $12.5 million in a funding round led by Silicon Valley firm Lightspeed Venture Partners. Cameo made Time magazine's 2018 Genius Companies list in October. The platform was also honored that month at the Chicago Innovation Awards.

Then last week, it was reported that an account associated with an anti-Jewish group had tricked former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, comedian Andy Dick and rapper Soulja Boy into making Cameo videos using coded anti-Semitic language. Cameo CEO and co-founder Steven Galanis told the Tribune that the message Favre made was uploaded to YouTube and labeled "Brett Favre calls out the Jews." Galanis called the videos a "wake-up call for us."

"If you actually listen to the video, the video itself was very benign or it seemed to be very benign. It seemed to have been in reference to some veteran group, when in actuality, it was coded language that the alt-right was using to kind of rally troops," said Galanis, 30. "It had gone viral on 4chan and some of the hate websites, and that's when we became aware of it."

Galanis said his team determined who booked the Favre video, banned that user and contacted YouTube and Instagram to request the video be taken off their sites. The Cameo team created a system over the weekend to monitor incoming orders and flag requests that may contain hate speech, symbols and/or groups, Galanis said.

The company is also working on features to help its roster of talent better understand the orders they receive and determine if the instructions contain language that would violate the platform's terms of service, which prohibits users from posting, sharing or requesting anything that is illegal, abusive, profane or hateful. Since its inception, Cameo has allowed its talent to decide for themselves which fan requests to complete. Cameo takes 25 percent of the booking fee, which varies among celebrities.

Favre pledged Saturday to donate $500 -- the price he charges to make a Cameo message -- to charity.

"On November 22, I received a request to record a shout-out supporting what appeared to be a U.S. veterans organization for Cameo, a company that enables consumers to book personalized video greetings from celebrities," Favre wrote on Facebook. "I had previously fulfilled more than 50 of these requests without incident. Since I match service dogs with military veterans who have PTSD, I assumed that the request stemmed from my interest in veterans affairs and recorded the message."

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Galanis, who met Favre while he was in Milwaukee for a weekend reunion of the 1996 Green Bay Packers team, said Favre's donation will go to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups, and Cameo will match the donation.

Meanwhile, Soulja Boy apologized for his video and said he didn't know it had a negative meaning. A representative for Dick said the comedian "feels used and manipulated by people who presented themselves as his fans but obviously wildly missed his intent." Galanis said none of the hundreds of boldface names who use the platform have indicated they are leaving because of the incidents.

"One of the things that we've told our talent is, 'Look, we've done 93,000 of these videos, and this is literally the first time we've ever had to pull any.' I think just with anything, there's bad actors. There was a point where somebody sent the first mean tweet on Twitter, somebody (posted) the first objectionable piece of content on YouTube or Facebook," Galanis told the Tribune.

"I think to some degree, bad actors are inevitable, but we just wanted to make it really clear to our talent that we built in new protections for them and Cameo today is safer than it's ever been."

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