Where PewDiePie went wrong
The backlash from YouTube star PewDiePie’s antiSemitic jokes was fast and furious. But it helped nobody, and achieved nothing, while PewDiePie’s response only served to deepen existing divisions between the media and a new generation of online influencers
PewDiePie was wrong, but not because he’s a Nazi
This past February, there was a furious sideshow going on against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s flailing administration. Felix Kjellberg, better known by his YouTube handle PewDiePie, found himself in the middle of a furore of his own making.
The YouTube star, who boasts over 50 million subscribers on his channel, was the focus of a Wall Street Journal article that singled out nine instances over a six-month period where he referenced anti-Semitic humor.
The resulting outcry ended with Disney severing ties with Kjellberg, the cancellation of the YouTube Red series Scare PewDiePie, and the loss of his ‘Google Preferred’ status at YouTube.
Ultimately, Kjellberg’s fall from grace forces us to think about the consequences that technology and the rise of open platforms for expression, like YouTube, have on the way we negotiate a convoluted information landscape and respond to it.
With great power comes great responsibility
PewDiePie has acknowledged his ability to shape public opinion in his response to everyone dropping him like a hot potato. “We have so much influence, and such a large voice,” he said of himself and his counterparts, albeit as part of a larger argument about how the traditional media was basically threatened by his success.
As it turns out, that may actually be the most irresponsible thing he has said so far. By portraying the media as petty, unreliable, and having a personal vendetta against him, Kjellberg is encouraging his vast audience to distrust mainstream news outlets at a time when we’re only
starting to come to grasp with fake news from dubious websites.
Kjellberg has a vast, loyal fan base, and the video where he made those statements was viewed over 16 million times.
He does raise a few valid points about the episode, such as pointing out that some of his jokes and stunts had been taken out of context. But while it’s okay to speak out against unfair portrayals, or single out the Wall Street Journal for criticism, it is counterproductive to set up the media as a monolithic, homogeneous institution to be pilloried.
Kjellberg has said he never intended to be a role model, but YouTube figures and other internet celebrities with his influence need to understand the impact they have on their audience.
On our end, it isn’t just YouTube that we need to contend with, and we’re continually assailed by noise from platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where larger-than-life personalities opine loudly, but not often logically, about the latest hot button issue. People who have successfully milked platforms like YouTube have outsize voices that rival the traditional media, but they should not exist in opposition to the latter.
With no clear authority to rely on and an increasingly unpopular and distrusted media, it’s tempting to take sides, when we should really be finding ways to leverage the open internet and its platforms to draw attention to the issues that really matter. Taking down a prominent YouTuber who made a bunch of jokes in bad taste doesn’t help, nor does riling up your audience against oldschool news outlets.