I saw an old classic at the movie theater yesterday: an ad for YouTube Red that heavily featured PewDiePie, the Swedish YouTube personality who used videos where he screams incomprehensibly about videogames to build one of the largest followings of any entertainer in the world.
I saw the same ad a week ago and it didn’t feel like a blast from the past at the time—PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, is the biggest star on YouTube, so obviously the site would push him heavily for its two-year-old subscription-based service. Yesterday, though, it stood out for one huge reason that you probably already know about: last week YouTube and Disney’s Maker Studios severed their relationships with Kjellberg after the Wall Street Journal reported on his repeated use of anti-Semitic humor and Nazi iconography over the previous six months. Although Kjellberg still has a YouTube channel with more subscribers than anybody else on YouTube (and it’s not even close—he has over 20 million more subscribers than the second most popular YouTuber), the loss of his deals with YouTube and Maker Studios will cost him a significant amount of money.
The catalyzing agent for all of this was a video from January where Kjellberg used the service Fiverr to pay two Indian men to hold up a sign that said “death to all Jews.” You almost have to respect Kjellberg’s commitment to being as racist as possible here, if you’re somehow capable of respecting horrible things: instead of just saying something racist about Jews himself, he used some of the millions and millions he’s earned screeching about videogames to pay two Indian men five entire bucks to dance around while hoisting up some hate speech. So there’s anti-Semitism, exploitation, and the general cluelessness of being a fantastically wealthy white guy all wrapped up in a spurt of sub-morning drive shock jock anti-comedy.
In the past, when an out-of-touch celebrity made a racist or insensitive comment, their team of agents, managers and publicists would immediately enter damage control mode. There’d be an apology, either through a press release, or, if the controversy was big enough, through a televised press conference. They’d go on talk shows to apologize directly to the public, and perhaps engage in some comic self-effacement somewhere on TV to emphasize that they understood how badly they messed up. Maybe they’d also just disappear for a while in hopes that it would blow over. The keys were to seem as sincere as possible while acknowledging that you made a mistake, and to then keep your head down and hope people forgot in time.
After the Wall Street Journal reported on PewDiePie’s penchant for anti-Semitic jokes, and Disney and YouTube made their entirely justified business decisions, Kjellberg had an array of options to choose from on how to respond. If he had chosen wisely, and followed the old rules for handling controversies like this, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about this anymore. Maybe he’d even get his old deals back after a period of time in the digital wilderness. Instead, in a video posted on YouTube late last week, he criticizes the Wall Street Journal and mainstream media for attacking him and turning what he swears was a poor attempt at humor into a targeted anti-PewDiePie campaign, inspired by traditional media’s fear and hatred of YouTubers. He apologizes in the video, but is less interested in attempting to understand why people would be offended in the first place than in criticizing the Wall Street Journal. It’s as if he’s telling his 50 million loyal subscribers that the problem wasn’t his own poor choices but the media’s factual coverage of his work. If, instead of truly apologizing, attacking the journalists who simply reported on what he had already said and done sounds familiar, well, that attitude goes straight to the top, to the man who’s right now sitting in the White House, or more likely a golf club in Palm Beach.
This is entirely predictable, though. This is 2017 in a nutshell, and another example of the world the internet has helped create. In the past you’d be effectively ostracized by all respectable members of society if you said or did something anti-Semitic without subsequently showing remorse or the understanding of why it was wrong. Few would publicly endorse thoughtless anti-Semitism like this. Now, though, the openly racist and white supremacist elements that have long lurked just outside the realm of public discourse have felt emboldened to leave the shadows and use the internet to exert some amount of influence on society, using YouTube, social media, podcasts and message boards to spread their message. Their coordinated online movement had at least some part to play in the rise of a candidate like Donald Trump, and they’ve kept their eyes open for opportunities to draft people who might help their cause. When immature resentment against women in videogames and videogame critics crystallized into the so-called “Gamergate” movement in 2014, these bad actors (including the alt-right’s favorite poster boy, Milo Yiannopoulos, who went from publically mocking gamers to opportunistically acting like their knight in shining armor in just a matter of weeks) were quick to appropriate that discontent for their own political aims. Drawing someone like Kjellberg, who has a massive audience of impressionable young viewers, into their influence would be a huge boon for them. Whether he realizes it or not, Kjellberg played directly into their hands by framing his apology as an attack on the journalists who exposed his anti-Semitic jokes.
Simple searches on Google and social media reveal that some of the same YouTube accounts, message boards and activist bloggers who drove the Gamergate hate fest are now openly courting Kjellberg to their side. Kjellberg publicly rejected any affiliation with these types in a Tumblr post on Feb. 12, but that was before he lost his Disney and YouTube Red deals. By impugning the motives and work of the three journalists from the Wall Street Journal who wrote the initial story, Kjellberg has denied responsibility for the outrage caused by his own actions, and helped to make them the targets of social media harassment for days now. Whether he realizes it or not, whether it was intentional or not, Kjellberg has once again emboldened these extreme voices by refusing to accept blame.
Felix Kjellberg should feel ashamed of his poor attempts at “ironic racism.” Instead segments of the internet that try to incite hatred and racial division have encouraged him to lash out at his critics, and unwittingly or not Kjellberg has followed suit. This legitimizes not just the kind of lazy, unfunny and cruel humor that Kjellberg engaged in, but the more overt forms of bigotry espoused by the people who encourage responses like Kjellberg’s. This entire story is basically a summary of the internet over the last few years: it’s become a way for the thoughtless to be reinforced and recruited by the malicious. Kjellberg can’t be lumped in with the internet’s blatant, coordinated hatemongers yet, but if he doesn’t make the right choices from here, he could go from advertising YouTube’s original programming in movie theaters across the country to being one of the most useful tools internet racists have found yet.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games, comedy and wrestling sections.