It’s been a rough week for YouTube’s biggest star. Felix Kjellberg—better known to his 53 million subscribers as PewDiePie—was dropped by Disney earlier this week after a Wall Street Journal inquiry regarding Kjellberg’s use of racial humor and Nazi imagery; yesterday YouTube itself cut his channel out of “Google Preferred” advertising. Big names on the platform are rushing to Kjellberg’s defense today.
Proper context clears up these misunderstandings, they claim. They’re right, but not for the reasons they’re thinking. The context of these “jokes” makes it hard to imagine how YouTube’s biggest star could have thought that this situation would shake out any differently.
Of the nine incidents cited by the Wall Street Journal in PewDiePie’s videos, two have come under particular scrutiny, both involving the service Fiverr, a “freelancing” site where users can pay as little as $5 in exchange for odd, often dubious jobs like boosting search rankings. In one, Kjellberg showed a clip of a man who resembled Jesus to say “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong.” In another he paid two young men to dance and laugh while holding a sign reading “Death to all jews.”
Besides demoting him to standard advertising revenue, YouTube has also cancelled the next season of “Scare PewDiePie”—a series made for the platform’s paid subscription service YouTube RED. (Another of RED’s planned series, “I Am Tobuscus,” was stymied last year by rape accusations made against its intended star, Toby Turner.)
But close friends and fellow creators have stepped forward to claim that Kjellberg was just joking, and that his outlandish behavior is being taken out of context by the Journal. Ethan Klein—who posts videos on the site to his 3.3 million subscribers as h3h3Productions—explained that the “death to all jews” sign also included the phrase “subscribe to Keemstar.” The intended butt of the joke was Daniel Keem, known as Keemstar on YouTube—an allusion to the many accusations of his untoward and often racist behavior.
Regardless of intent, 4chan and a variety of white supremacist and national socialist sites took Kjellberg’s attempts at humor as a dogwhistle. Members of 4chan’s infamous /pol/ board and neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer declared PewDiePie a fellow traveler of sorts. In the days since his fall from grace, YouTube personalities popular in the so-called “alt-right” have made videos on the matter, with Sargon of Akkad claiming Kjellberg did nothing wrong (a dull allusion to the earlier Hitler jokes) and Styxhexhammer666 claiming PewDiePie has taken up the alt-right mantle as a business strategy.
It’s difficult to say what responsibility Kjellberg has to the massive and unprecedented audience he’s worked to accrue. Though fellow comedians on the platform like Klein seem to think this instance isn’t particularly damning. “Context matters,” he barks in the same vlog defending Felix, before claiming he didn’t even read the Journal’s coverage due to its website’s paywall. (Maybe that’s a joke too—it’s getting harder to tell what is or isn’t these days, since very little of it is particularly funny.)
Klein is right to a degree: the context of Kjellberg’s “jokes” weren’t well addressed by the Journal. For instance, one such claim of “Nazi imagery”—where clips of a Hitler speech were played while Felix donned military garb—were meant to satirize YouTube’s controversial new moderation protocols. But in the context of internet history, it’s baffling to think this could be anything other than an appeal to the most unoriginal of trolls.
Using Fiverr to pay strangers to say strange or offensive things is a well-tread meme among 4channers. One particularly famous YouTube channel (now deleted) shelled out money over and over to get a classroom full of kids in India to say phrases like “I am not gay, but $20 is $20.” Another features a man with a hand drum proclaiming “the holocaust is a lie.” Big Man Tyrone, another pay-to-say service, has delivered messages on behalf of GamerGate.
4chan’s rigging of online polls and contests to spread shock humor or hate speech has led to Mountain Dew and Frito-Lay having to veto potential crowdsourced flavors called “Hitler did nothing wrong.” It’s an old joke—insofar as 2011 is an eternity in internet years—within 4chan circles, and it’s strange to see it leaking into content made by the most popular YouTuber in history who was, until recently, raking in money from Disney.
Back in 2011, the tenor of such “jokes” was simple: mess with a major brand by making something deeply offensive highly visible on their website. Or at least, that was the smokescreen used by those who genuinely believed statements like these about Hitler. “Comedy and jokes are not real,” Keemstar shouted in his own video defending Felix. But as the internet as a whole has become more politicized—and quasi-fascist candidates take increasingly high offices around the world—claiming jokes like the ones Kjellberg made are “just jokes” is a hollow defense reminiscent of the “it’s just a prank, bro” argument made by YouTubers who were exposing their genitals to strangers for views.
“Some have been pointing to my videos and saying that I am giving credibility to the anti-Semitic movement” Kjellberg wrote in a Tumblr post on Sunday prior to being publicly dropped, “I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes.” Personally, I believe him. But he had to know that this type of humor was, at best cribbed from some of the most hateful corners of the internet and at worse pandering to them. He also must have known that massive corporations are in no way obligated to continue paying him to make content that has the potential to tarnish their image.
Even the normally combative Philip DeFranco said in a vlog today that “while I don’t support Felix getting kicked off these things... I also understand why the company would do this.” As summarized in a particularly tepid response to the situation vlogger and CNN employee Casey Neistat said, “you can say whatever you want but at times there will be consequences for it.”
The consequence for Felix is that his formerly unstoppable online brand has become toxic overnight. But the greater consequence is that now, no matter how vehemently Kjellberg denies it, Nazis believe the biggest star on the biggest video platform on the planet is a Nazi too.
Correction: This article original stated that Felix had paid the Jesus-looking guy, though a reader brought to our attention that he’d merely played a clips of it in his vlog. Gizmodo regrets the error.