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PewDiePie calls out media “attack” in response to Disney fallout

Valentina Palladino

The media and PewDiePie keep calling each other out, and neither is totally wrong.

PewDiePie via YouTube
This week started with controversial PewDiePie news—and that's how it's going to end, too. The YouTube megastar, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, posted a response video today addressing The Wall Street Journal's report about alleged anti-Semitic comments. Those comments cost him both a lucrative contract with Disney and his deal with YouTube Red.
In his response, Kjellberg apologized for jokes that "went too far" and acknowledged that he offended people. But he also claimed that "old-school media" (in this case the Journal) attacked him personally for being a YouTube personality who makes a substantial living off the online video platform.
Let's recap the controversyThe Wall Street Journal produced a video and an article earlier this week about PewDiePie's alleged anti-Semitism, citing clips from recent videos in which he is shown watching a Hitler speech, making a Hitler salute, and paying two men to hold up a sign saying "Death to all Jews." After fielding an inquiry from the Journal about the videos, Disney cut ties with PewDiePie, who had been running the Disney YouTube network, Revelmode. Shortly thereafter, YouTube announced it was canceling PewDiePie's YouTube Red show, Scare PewDiePie, and it removed the YouTube star from its Google Preferred ad network.
PewDiePie is a self-proclaimed "rookie comedian" who made un-funny, anti-Semitic jokes—and he should be called out for them. But without validating the mistakes he's made, we can also take seriously the point he makes about the media and its reaction to Internet success.

Is it hate?

The Wall Street Journal's video cites a total of nine videos in which Kjellberg makes alleged anti-Semitic comments and jokes, but two of them are getting the most attention. One shows Kjellberg using the freelance website Fiverr to pay an Indian comedy duo called Funny Guys to hold up various messages on signs. The gimmick of Fiverr at the time was that you could pay creators just $5 to do pretty much anything, and Kjellberg has said in a blog post that his intention was to show the absurdity of that concept. The last sign he paid Funny Guys to make said "Death to all Jews." At the end of that video, Kjellberg apologized and said he didn't believe the men would actually hold up such an inflammatory message. But the backlash was swift and fiery: Fiverr banned the Funny Guys, who also apologized and said they didn't understand what the sign meant. (Fiverr later reinstated Funny Guys.)
The other clip shows Kjellberg dressed as a soldier and watching a Hitler speech. The context for this bit, which The Wall Street Journal did not include, was Kjellberg discussing YouTube's controversial new "Heroes" program. Heroes allows YouTube users to flag videos and comments they deem inappropriate and, thus, get them taken down. For doing this, Heroes rack up "points" that give them access to special YouTube perks and programs. Kjellberg was comparing "Heroes" who abuse their power to remove any videos they don't like to the power wielded by Hitler and the Nazis. (Multiple YouTubers have called out the Heroes program for being misguided in its approach to the issue of content moderation, though none of them have done so with this sort of absurd comparison.)
For its part, YouTube believes that PewDiePie's stunts may violate its community guidelines. In a statement, YouTube said, "If content is intended to be provocative or satirical, it may remain online. If the uploader's intent is to incite violence or hatred it will be removed." And the video with the anti-Semitic signs has been removed from PewDiePie's channel.
Kjellberg's "lolz just kidding" attitude when it comes to offensive jokes and stunts isn't a new one; he has made that excuse in the past in response to racist or sexist humor. Just take a look at his recent "Smash or Pass" challenge video in which he says, in jest, that he would "sell them to slavery," referring to YouTube duo Dan and Phil. And he keeps doing stunts that just aren't funny: recently, Kjellberg threatened to delete his YouTube channel when he reached 50 million subscribers (spoiler: he didn't delete the YouTube channel that matters).

Persecuted by the mainstream media

One of PewDiePie's main concerns in his response video is the idea that mainstream media "doesn't like" YouTube stars and that it is "scared" of Internet creators.
"We have so much influence and such a large voice," he said, "and I don't think they [the media] understand it."
That's arguably true. Traditional media hasn't done the best job covering YouTube creators since the first wave of them gained intense popularity. While we're no longer seeing as many articles like Variety's 2013 "If PewDiePie Is YouTube's Top Talent, Then We're All Doomed," we are still seeing articles like "PewDiePie Just Showed Every Brand Why Influencers Are Dangerous" in Forbes. The Forbes headline lumps every Internet influencer into the "dangerous" category, though the article doesn't make a convincing case why a YouTube megastar is a demonstrably different kind of brand spokesperson than an actress or pro athlete.
We're still not far from the media stereotype that YouTube personalities make millions from screaming vulgarities at video games online. Even Jenna Marbles, one of the biggest female creators on YouTube, faced eye-rolls when she soared in popularity after her video "How to trick people into thinking you're good looking" went viral. That video was uploaded seven years ago, and, after it became popular, news outlets like Good Morning America—hardly known for its insightful and deeply reported segments—had Jenna Marbles on to talk about the "ridiculousness" of her "success" on YouTube.
In 2017, Jenna Marbles has 16.7 million subscribers with 2.2 billion views. That success has translated into speaking gigs at universities around the country, multiple awards, and her launch of another successful YouTube channel. While her content has gotten more diverse, she still makes silly videos reminiscent of her first big viral success. Even though she was the butt of the joke when she first became popular, Marbles has remained relevant in the hyperactive Internet world.
To other successful YouTubers like PewDiePie, no level of success by any YouTube star can convince mainstream media that online video isn't frivolous. (Or, at least any less frivolous than reality TV and other forms of media celebrity.)
While some parts of the media may not understand how much influence creators like PewDiePie have, Felix Kjellberg may not fully understand his own influence as the most popular YouTuber in the world. He has acknowledged that hate groups have placed him on a pedestal—they've called him "our guy" and have supported him for "normalizing" hateful views. But Kjellberg states in his response video that he doesn't think his crude "comedy" normalizes hate. This seems dangerously naïve.
Kjellberg isn't just some random "YouTuber" any more. He has legions of teenagers and impressionable people watching him. While PewDiePie will likely never be a family-friendly channel, Kjellberg will have to adjust the thoughts, words, and actions that go into making the PewDiePie character so that he's not seen as a champion of hate speech. Indeed, the ultimate "normalization" of YouTube stars may be the moment when they are subject to the same standards and scrutiny as "normal" celebrities everywhere.
PewDiePie calls out media “attack” in response to Disney fallout Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 2:58 PM Rating: 5

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