The results are in: not even the world’s most popular Youtuber is impervious to the consequences one should face for espousing antisemitism. Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie to his 53 million videogame-loving Youtube subscribers, made headlines last month for uploading a video called “Death To All Jews.” In the now-removed video, Kjellberg filmed his reaction to two boys in India holding up a sign endorsing Jewish genocide, an orchestrated stunt which he paid for on the freelancing site Fiverr. This story was first picked up by The Wall Street Journal, which also reported on the Youtube star’s troubling history of creating videos that rely on hateful and offensive “jokes.”
In response to ensuing storm of negative media coverage, both Youtube and the Disney-owned Maker Studios announced that they are ending their high-profile partnerships with Kjellberg and his PewDiePie channel. Kjellberg has since issued a halfhearted apology, stating that the video in question was simply an attempt to showcase the ridiculous nature of the Fiverr platform, adding that“I acknowledge that I took things too far and that’s something I definitely will keep in mind going forward, but the reaction and the outrage has been nothing but insanity.”
It’s now a few weeks later and not much has changed. The PewDiePie brand has suffered a huge setback and Kjellberg has lost his two most lucrative partnership deals, but the 27 year-old is still estimated to make at least $7 Million this year alone, according to a recent Forbes report. While 3 of the most offensive PewDiePie videos have since been removed from Youtube (including another Fiverr prank in which he paid an actor to portray Jesus Christ and say that Hitler did nothing wrong), one can still find plenty of videos on his channel, old and new, which use racism, sexism, and—you guessed it—antisemitism, in order to make cheap jokes for easy laughs. He may have lost one of his extra lives, but he’s far from Game Over.
I know that’s a lot of news recap right there, but as a Jewish person who occasionally dabbles in watching Youtube videos about video games, this headline has understandably given me a lot to think about. I never really got into PewDiePie—I certainly tried watching to see what all the fuss was about back in high school, but my friends and I came to the conclusion that we were either too old or too well-educated to enjoy watching a man scream about scary video games.
I guess at some point most PewDiePie fans grew tired of this tactic as well, and he had to figure out a unique way to diversify his humor. Kjellberg decided to take the low road, and over the years his videogame and vlog-heavy content has slowly expanded to include offensive jokes used in a “playful” manner. He’s made rape jokes, loves using the word retarded as an insult, and has said the N-word and its Swedish equivalent in videos in the past. I’m unsure why it took until now for Kjellberg to get the rightfully deserved flak for all of this, or why antisemitism seems to be the straw that finally broke the Youtuber’s back, but here we are.
As unfortunate as it may be, this story does seem to perfectly exemplify the Internet’s recent blurring of the lines between unabashed hate speech and offensive trolling. Whereas I did write last time about playful yet ultimately harmless trolling on Wikipedia, Kjellberg’s brand of “For the lulz” trolling does tend to punch down. In fact, the Youtuber has resonated with the Alt-Right so well that he is now featured on The Daily Stormer, a website has earned the distinction of “the top hate site in America” from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Whereas most Alt-Right media is geared at young adults (or at the very least older teenagers), it is additionally a little worrisome that one of Kjellberg’s key demographics happen to be middle-schoolers, who of course are more easily impressionable and susceptible to taking the “zany antics” of PewDiePie at face value. I’m young enough to remember talking about my favorite Youtube videos and comedians with friends at the lunch table, and so my heart goes out to the kids that must have been made fun of when the “Death to All Jews” video came out. No form of communication, even that which happens online, happens in a bubble; everything has real-word effects and repercussions. Kjellberg seems to be reluctant to acknowledge this, and has shown no indication that he will make any drastic departures from his current offensive tactics.
This news story was at the front of my mind last week when Molly gave her excellent presentation on pets as social media influencers, joking that dogs and cats are great in that they can never say something harmful or offensive. Kjellberg’s story is unique in the sense that it wasn’t one bad joke or expletive that caused a media uproar, and the most recent chapter of his career has in fact been characterized by his usage of these offensive jokes. Similarly to popular trolls such as Milo Yiannopoulos and, yes, Donald Trump, Kjellberg cultivated an online persona that had allowed him to be offensive without being taken “seriously.” Given his longstanding reign as the near-literal King of Youtube, his downfall, as temporary or minor as it may be, shows that no one is immune from being called out for going too far in the wrong direction.
Many have seen this story as a red flag for any marketing agency that currently works with social media influencers, as this has become a hot new industry trend in the past few years. Previously, the social media influencer “The Fat Jewish” faced controversy in 2015 when his history of widespread joke plagiarism was documented online at a key growth point in his career.
Although the Instagram star, real name Josh Ostrovsky, did end up losing his Comedy Central pilot in the aftermath (the network later clarified that this decision wasn’t actually influenced by the plagiarism accusations), the “comedian” still has many successful brand partnerships, his own wine brand, and a book deal. Similarly, Kjellberg has partnered with dozens of companies over the years to push apparel, games, and even his very own book published by Penguin last year.
Kjellberg will most likely continue his racist trolling, but at least now he’ll be doing it alone. Personally, I’m concerned that we one day will reach a point where the racist and antisemitic Alt-Right movement becomes so mainstream to the extent that brands won’t need to drop hateful or racist celebrities to save face. Until that day, it’s nice to know that the reactionary power of the Internet and online media is still enough to stop hatred. It’s just upsetting to know that antisemitism and racism are still being normalized with every new PewDiePie video that goes live to millions of ad revenue-enabled views. Felix Kjellberg is certainly going to maintain his status as a successful social media influencer, but he’ll remain as far as possible from being a positive influence on the tens of millions of fans who tune in to laugh at his cheap and offensive jokes.