PewDiePie, or Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, is likely one of the most powerful individuals in gaming. His channel has over 53 million subscribers, and his videos have made him incredibly wealthy. Forbes estimated his earnings at approximately $15 million in 2016, making him the most successful personality on YouTube by far.
It’s part of what makes his anti-Semitic humor and use of Nazi imagery so hard to dismiss, and what likely forced Disney and YouTube to terminate or limit their relationships with him. But that’s only part of the story: Kjellberg is a young guy with a huge audience who loves laughing at his own messages about killing Jews, and he’s very upset the media isn’t willing to laugh along with him.
It doesn’t work that way
“The media wants to paint me as some sort of villain,” he said in a video that he later deleted. He feels unjustly targeted when one of his videos backfires.
He’s the “real” victim here, he argues. Not the marginalized groups he targets in his shock humor. He’s not responsible for any of these controversies by creating these videos, the media is for reporting on them.
The damage to his relationships with Disney and Google is likely to increase the problem, creating a cycle of bad publicity that he’ll see as more justification for the belief he’s being persecuted by an unfair media that doesn’t appreciate what he considers to be humor.
Kjellberg believes there is a way in which he can enjoy his fortune and influence in peace, without being held responsible for the actual content of his videos, and he finds the press’ inability to provide him that option deeply unfair.
This isn’t the first time that becoming news has put him on the defensive.
The Federal Trade Commission named Kjellberg in a complaint about YouTube personalities who accepted money to promote games. "Yes, I could have disclosed it better (in 2014)," he said in a video addressing the situation. "I could have put it above the fold. So basically, all of these news articles are using me as a clickbait, putting my name to shame, when I didn't even do anything wrong."
PewDiePie isn’t the target of hostile news outlets; he’s a powerful, wealthy individual with a massive audience. PewDiePie is a public figure whether he likes it or not, and he makes it very clear he doesn’t like that loss of control. Places like YouTube and Twitter give individuals in that situation unlimited access to a huge, often uncritical audience. They don’t have to answer questions they’d rather avoid, while being able to frame each conversation in very specific ways to make their points.
“It’s almost like Polygon and Kotaku are sitting in the corner of my videos being like ‘c’mon, say something bad about gaming so we can get in on this shit,’” he stated. He doesn’t just want you to see him as the victim of unfair coverage; he wants you to think criticism of his sense of humor is itself somehow dangerous.
“I truly believe these articles slamming people like me for these topics, they’re doing more harm than good,” he explained. “They’re doing more harm than I’m doing by saying them. I think being the political correctness police is essentially just going to fuck us all over, and this year, 2017 I decided I'm taking a stance back, I'm going to be true to myself. I want to do the sense of humor that I enjoy, and this is the price for it, I'm fine with that.”
This is a huge departure from his attitude last year.
"I still make kinda stupid jokes that I shouldn't make,” he said in April of 2016. “But I feel like back then I didn't understand. I was so immature and I just thought things were funny just because they were offensive. So I would say a lot of stupid shit. I'm not proud of it. I'm really not. But I'm also glad that I've grown past it."
Being offensive, in 2017, is how he is going to be true to himself. The price ended up being higher than he likely assumed when he made, and then removed, the video blaming the press for his troubles. And his troubles are extensive.
Using genocide as a punchline
“It might just be my crude sense of humor, but I think there’s something funny about that,” Kjellberg said after he paid for a “death to all Jews” sign to be displayed in a video. “I don’t think there’s any actual anti-Semitic thing about it.” The video in which the sign is displayed has close to 10 million views.
Kjellberg has said he’s comfortable with the press criticizing him when he messes up, but he reserves the right to decide for everyone when those situations exist. This, in his eyes, in a situation where he played a prank and it’s unfair that it became a news story.
Kjellberg has something of a history of making bad jokes and then blaming everyone else when they go over poorly.
The “death to all Jews” sign isn’t the problem, he argues, the problem is that it gets reported on. He’s the victim, in his own eyes, because his jokes were poorly received. He believes that whatever he intends to be a joke is inherently not damaging, because he’s just goofing around. It’s a tautology; his humor is inoffensive because he says it’s not serious.
That belief, which he used to examine when removing things like homophobic references or rape jokes from his videos, is by itself dangerous. Intent only gets you so far when it comes to toying with hate speech in front of an audience of tens of millions, many of whom are younger children. He still believes he should be allowed to do or say whatever he wants without the possibility of negative news coverage.
Blaming the media for discussing the firestorms in which he puts himself makes it seem as if he has little understanding of his actual platform and impact. You can’t continually repeat “it’s just a joke” every time you cause controversy, and that’s an unfortunate misunderstanding when your “humor” is so often based on repetition of hateful words and imagery.
Kjellberg is not being treated unfairly by the media, and in fact his popularity has likely shielded him from these consequences far longer than anyone would have expected. He’s not being targeted by the press; he’s finally being held to the same standards as other entertainers. These aren’t lapses that happen during live tapings, these are edited videos. You see is what he intends you to see. When these images and jokes fail, or simply rely on cheap shock for effect, his reaction is to make another video blaming the press for his mistakes. The idea he might be held responsible for his own actions seems very unfair to him.
PewDiePie’s love of far right-wing humor is doing real damage
“I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary,” Kjellberg stated in a Tumblr post three days ago. “I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive ... As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way.”
White supremacists don’t see it that way, and neo-Nazi and white supremacist site The Daily Stormer has been gleefully supporting PewDiePie’s ongoing habit of exposing his audience to anti-Semitic images and jokes, seeing Kjellberg’s videos as a path to their beliefs gaining legitimacy and a wider audience of young people.
“The guy has 52 million subscribers, compared to the number two YouTuber that has 30 million. He is arguably the most watched person on the planet,” the site reported this January. “...In this video, he calls out the Jews for killing Jesus, and points out several times that Hitler did nothing wrong. At the very least, he is making the masses comfortable with our ideas. ... I hope he keeps doing this — staying chill, I mean. Not going too far. I think he’s aware that he’s eventually going to get banned — if he wasn’t ready for that, he wouldn’t be calling out the Jews head-on like this.”
Their most recent post about the situation expresses hope that now PewDiePie will be “coming fully on board the Republican agenda,” before — just as PewDiePie likes to do in his videos — naming outlets and reporters who were critical of the YouTuber. Doing so in this context is an implicit threat: They are telling their followers to go after these individuals.
A Tumblr post saying these videos are all just one big funny joke isn’t enough. It never was. Kjellberg would love for everyone to think he’s the real victim here, but we’re far past the point that argument can be taken seriously by anyone but the white supremacists following the story with such avid hope for their cause.
Kjellberg is empowering and emboldening hate groups. Ignoring that fact is irresponsible for everyone from PewDiePie to YouTube itself, and especially the press covering online gaming culture.
PewDiePie did this, not the press
Kjellberg has reached the limits of the problems he can escape with his money and power, and the loss of so many business deals is a serious blow. He seems unwilling to make peace with the fact what he says and how he says it is news, and is being used as PR for active hate groups.
He may think these “jokes” are all part of one big goof, but his frustration at being put into a situation with the media where he’s not shown deference by default is very real. Kjellberg would assert that his influence and wealth, and his ability to craft any message he wants to an uncritical audience — an audience that includes both children and white supremacists — has created a situation in which he's always the victim. It isn't just misguided, it's laughable.
The loss of so many aspects of Kjellberg’s business is likely due in at least part to coverage of his irresponsible sense of humor, and this may be one of the few times in his adult life where his power and money don't allow him to control the situation, which is why an independent press remains important. We have reached the point where Kjellberg reading stories about himself in a sarcastic tone while rolling his eyes on camera isn't enough of a defense for his own actions.
The collective press, as if such a thing exists, isn’t cheering for the end of PewDiePie, and in fact he has the ability to accept responsibility for the situation he created and learn from it. He’s tried to do so in the past. This isn’t the end of the story, it can be the beginning of a much more positive chapter for the popular entertainer. Just as before, he has all the power necessary to do the right thing.