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PewDiePie and Trump aren't hurting the press, but they desperately want to

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The bonkers notion that the media is at war with itself

PewDiePie on the set of Scare PewDiePie Maker Studios / YouTube

PewDiePie has found himself in the middle of a firestorm this week, and his latest video about the situation makes the bizarre assertion that The Wall Street Journal, threatened by his success and influence, is out to hurt him financially.

It’s a silly assertion backed up by some flimsy logic. PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, is joining his fellow powerful public figures — particularly those in the politically conservative sphere — in claiming that the media can’t be trusted and the collective reporting on his videos is a personal attack on him as a person.

This is all due to a report the Wall Street Journal published late Monday night, in which the publication highlighted nine instances of Kjellberg using anti-Semitic and Nazi imagery in the service of comedy. The fallout saw him dropped by his biggest corporate sponsors, which are among the best-known names in media: Disney and Google.

“I think what this article shows, more than anything, old school media does not like internet personalities because they’re scared of us,” he said in a video response, uploaded to his channel Thursday morning.

Evidence of the media’s fear of Kjellberg is the fact that The Wall Street Journal, a conservative, business-oriented publication, focused on his business and reached out to his business partners. Asking the Disney company about one of its brand partners clumsily joking about Nazism isn’t forcing the companies to sever ties; it’s reporting on a story.

Kjellberg also tweeted that he wasn’t asked about the story before it went live.

That doesn’t seem to be true, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Mr. Kjellberg didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article,” the original report stated. Wall Street Journal technology columnist Christopher Mims tweeted:

Kjellberg goes back and forth in his subsequent video response, saying he understands why people are upset, then claiming their offense is the media’s fault, because they reported on his content. The goalposts constantly move throughout the video, as if one side of his brain is trying to make things better, and the other side desperately needs to share how unfair all this is.

“Nice try, Wall Street Journal. Try again, motherfucker,” he says, giving the camera the finger. He’s still out here making videos. He still has an audience, and the media will continue to report on what he says and does, because it’s the media’s job to report on influential people in our community.

The media is not scared of PewDiePie, and this is not personal

Kjellberg’s direct response video also makes the claim that negative articles are written because the traditional press is scared of his influence and power and are trying to limit it.

Other targets of Kjellberg’s ire aren’t allowing his misleading statements to go unchallenged.

Kjellberg criticized a 2013 Variety story in his video, and the author wasn't having it. “But what really steams me is what PewDiePie neglected to share with the world in his video Thursday: Variety put PewDiePie on the cover in 2015 in an article that couldn’t have been more positive, hailing him as the leader of a new movement in entertainment," Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein wrote. “How come he didn’t complain then about the 2013 column when he agreed to pose for these pictures?

“For the past three years, Variety has devoted three cover stories to the influencer phenomenon precisely because it matters, and we were proud to be ahead of the curve,” he continued. “So forgive me for bristling when PewDiePie spouts, as he did today, ‘We have so much influence and such a large voice and I don’t think they understand it, and that’s why they take this approach.’”

This is a claim that’s made often these days, and not just by entertainers like Kjellberg. Donald Trump, arguably the most powerful man in the world, gets much value out of bypassing the traditional press in order to speak to his audience directly through social media.

“It’s a great form of communication,” Trump said of Twitter, his platform of choice, on 60 Minutes last November. “I’m not saying I love it, but it does get the word out. When you give me a bad story or when you give me an inaccurate story ... I have a method of fighting back.”

Trump doesn't want anyone to question him, and he maintains complete control over the tone of his messages. Kjellberg also knows the drill: The critical press is illegitimate. Only he can decide how people are supposed to discuss his actions. The media represents a loss of control, and that seems intolerable to both men.

I’m keenly aware that this article won’t do much to convince Kjellberg’s audience to leave or flock to him. It’s not designed to impact his business, nor his popularity. His fanbase likely won’t read it. His business won’t be affected by it, nor are writers covering that business’ losses hoping to “take him down.”

Instead, they’re writing news about one of the most powerful individuals in gaming and his business relationships with some of the most powerful organizations in business. The story involves anti-Semitic humor and Nazi imagery. It’s hard to describe what’s happened in a way that doesn’t sound sensational, even if Kjellberg claims that this is manufactured outrage.

He will continue to make money talking directly to his gigantic audience, and the rest of the press will trudge on and adapt, as it always has. Kjellberg doesn’t pose an existential threat to news outlets, and attacks on the media’s credibility sometimes even increase subscriptions to outlets that are willing to report on powerful individuals.

The outlets that are supposed to be scared of YouTube’s popularity — and many commenters include Polygon in this list — continue to grow. YouTube as a way to share news or analysis has likely done more to create a new audience for itself rather than cannibalize the existing audiences of serious-minded business newspapers or even the traditional gaming press, yet the situation tends to be presented as a zero-sum game. If you aren’t on YouTube, the story goes, you are scared of those who are. They are the future.

The publishing industry has problems, absolutely. Print has been struggling for years, and the online advertising market is a tumultuous place, with ad-blockers and an often-justified fear about what information sites are gathering about you and what they’re doing with it.

A lot of traffic flows through Facebook, linking the success of many outlets to the algorithms of that social media platform. Nearly everyone in publishing feels the impact when the platform changes how it decides what content to show to what people and many companies, including Vox Media, were paid to create video content for Facebook.

Most of us who write online and collect a steady paycheck for doing so think and worry about these issues, not about YouTubers stealing our audience. The goals of in-house video teams in traditional outlets, and the business model involved, is likewise much different than one-person personality businesses like Kjellberg’s.

That’s why the idea that YouTube creates such a crisis of confidence for the media that The Wall Street Journal wants to take its biggest star down out of fear or spite doesn’t hold water. They’re not fighting for the same audiences, plain and simple. The Wall Street Journal reports that the average age of its readers is 42, with an average household income of $245,594.

This is a sampling of Kjellberg’s channel:

I bet these videos have good stock tips
PewDiePie

But what YouTube and Kjellberg’s other platforms can do to a much greater degree than the Wall Street Journal can is galvanize supporters. Donald Trump weaponized his Twitter account pre- and post-election, taking out his frustrations on his critics from a place where they could not touch him. That emboldened his fans to do the same, cyberbullying members of the left and other outspoken anti-Trump critics who dared cross him.

We’re seeing the same thing happen with Kjellberg’s fanbase in the wake of his dismissal from Disney. The YouTuber’s begun spreading content made by his supporters that targets the writers of the Wall Street Journal piece with very real threats, encouraging viewers and fellow fans to band together and protect their idol. (We will not be linking to this particular video, nor any others.)

At the same time, Kjellberg, Trump and others of their ilk seem unable to comprehend that these actions are both accessible and viewable by the media. Trump is dismissive of the media for perpetuating stories that do not flatter him, yet consistently provides them with fodder through his Twitter account. Kjellberg put himself in a situation where he expects to only be listened to by people who like him. He’s resentful when his public videos and messages reach people who may be critical of his performance.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of eyes on me during this video, so I’m going to address this as if I’m talking publicly and not directly to my audience, which is how I normally would do it,” he says in his filmed response to the Wall Street Journal’s bombshell report.

It’s a startling way to begin a video by someone who has always been speaking to the public. What he’s really saying is that he can no longer assume everyone watching is going to take what he says at face value. And then he goes on the attack, yet again.

This is a quagmire for the star

The problem is that he’s stuck. Trying to frame criticism as a war with the media simply makes more news, which fuels his resentment at being asked to take responsibility for his content. A Twitter thread from popular writer Film Crit Hulk put it best.

But rather than face yourself, other people’s sensitivity becomes the enemy. So the jokes get more extreme. So the consequences become more real too. Then you’re so embedded in your own war on sensitivity that you don’t realize you’ve joined a side. Sure, you don’t know what you stand for, it’s just all about them sweet sweet liberal tears. But soon the people who support you start making ‘sense’ because they see the same flaws in the people you hate that you do. And soon enough you become the very fascistic asshat you once could not relate to, but only made ‘jokes’ about.

Kjellberg has millions of supporters, but he’s finding himself in an uncomfortable place where having a connection to many of them is not a good look for him or his business. He’s being defended by people whose views he claims not to share, but they continue to follow him around like a swarm of gnats.

“Kjellberg had, either instinctively or intentionally, constructed a political identity as YouTube’s insider class-traitor, raging against a system that’s — trust him, but also he’s just joking, but he would know — totally rigged,” reads a recent article in The New York Times Magazine. “Now he is sketching out what a far more toxic YouTube politics of ressentiment might look like, under the threadbare cover of ironic bigotry, the recent history of which is worryingly instructive. In the meantime, the self-identified real racists are laughing along heartily, even as Kjellberg strenuously attempts to distance himself from them.”

It is likely that Kjellberg will respond to these criticisms by saying that The New York Times being jealous of his influence, but that’s a hard sell in 2017. Trump’s very publicly used that same move again and again to diminishing returns.

Kjellberg finds himself stuck in the same loop Trump fell into after Michael Flynn’s resignation: The situation is real, and the man resigned, but Trump argues that the news saying so is fake. Similarly, Kjellberg states his jokes were offensive, and he apologizes, but continues to blame the press for putting him in this current situation.

The Wall Street Journal didn’t have much to gain by “attacking” Kjellberg. It was another business story to them. But Kjellberg has a lot to gain from convincing everyone that any news outlet that criticizes him is doing so because they’re jealous of his power.

The “war” didn’t come to him, it’s a construct he created in order to remain a millionaire with the largest audience on YouTube who is also the embattled underdog only trying to do the right thing while sometimes dressing up like a Nazi.

Kjellberg self-victimization is a classic tactic used by powerful public figures who consider themselves beyond reproach, as Buzzfeed explained.

“It’s just a short step from like-minded victim-heroes linking up to edgelords radicalizing each other, just like Men’s Rights Activists, or creepy Pick-Up Artists: Nobody else gets their embattled perspective, their need for validation, their need for help,” reads a recent editorial from the publication. “In fact, they’re vilified for it. And so they urge one another on, and because all humor is based on seeds of discomfort, and seeds can eventually bloom, the joke hate eventually evolves into real hate.”

This is Kjellberg’s strategy, as it’s been for a long time. This isn’t the first time he has played the victim when things don’t go his way: Some of his most popular videos even criticize YouTube, a service to which he owes most of his success.

This tactic of demeaning and belittling anyone who dares to shine a light on your mistakes — or do something you don’t like — is a bad one. Kjellberg turned an apology into a declaration of war, and the deplorables of the internet are ready to fight alongside him. Kjellberg’s video addressing the situation, as of this writing, has more than six million views.

Outrage, it turns out, is a very good way to get attention on YouTube.