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Why Disney and PewDiePie Were Doomed From the Start

The PewDiePie reckoning is finally upon us. In the wake of a report from The Wall Street Journal yesterday, which highlighted a number of anti-Semitic jokes that appeared recently in PewDiePie’s videos, Disney dropped the world’s most successful video-game YouTuber — known offline as Felix Kjellberg — from its web-celebrity production company, Maker Studios. This morning, YouTube announced it was canceling the second season of Scare PewDiePie, which is only available on its premium service, YouTube Red; and it was also removing him from the tier of YouTubers that have access to the service’s best advertisers.

From the Journal’s report:

Mr. Kjellberg says the material is portrayed in jest. He showed a clip from a Hitler speech in a Sept. 24 video criticizing a YouTube policy, posted swastikas drawn by his fans on Oct. 15 and watched a Hitler video in a brown military uniform to conclude a Dec. 8 video. He also played the Nazi Party anthem before bowing to a swastika in a mock resurrection ritual on Jan. 14, and included a very brief Nazi salute with a Hitler voice-over saying “Sieg Heil” and the text “Nazi Confirmed” near the beginning of a Feb. 5 video.

In one video, “Kjellberg showed a man dressed as Jesus Christ saying, ‘Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong.’”

In a subplot that particularly emphasizes the new-economy insanity of the entire saga, Kjellberg had also used the website Fiverr, which provides small financial incentives for completing certain tasks, to hire two men to make and display a sign reading “Death to All Jews.” Upon seeing footage of the completed task, Kjellberg remarked, “I didn’t think they would actually do it.” (On Twitter, Kjellberg implored Fiverr to reinstate the account of his unwitting prank victims.)

These poorly conceived attempts at shock humor, sprinkled over videos dating back nearly six months, eventually earned him the attention of neo-reactionaries and white-supremacist websites such as the Daily Stormer. This isn’t new ground, exactly — white nationalists have made a habit of finding heroes in high-profile figures like Taylor Swift and Tom Brady — but it’s easier to blame PewDiePie for attracting their attention, given that he, you know, made a series of anti-Semitic jokes.

Even before news broke yesterday that Disney was dropping him, Kjellberg attempted to address the brouhaha in a Tumblr post over the weekend.

This originated from a video I made a couple of weeks ago. I was trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online. I picked something that seemed absurd to me—That people on Fiverr would say anything for 5 dollars.

I think it’s important to say something and I want to make one thing clear: I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes.

I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.

As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way.

Kjellberg also took down three of the controversial videos.

More surprising than PewDiePie’s sudden fall from YouTube grace is the fact that it took this long for the big brands on which he relies for sponsorship to become disenchanted with his gamer-culture brand of humor. It’s far from Kjellberg’s first envelope-pushing gag. Last year, his Twitter account was briefly suspended after he joked about joining ISIS, and in December, he sarcastically theorized that YouTube was suppressing his viewership numbers because he is white.

To anyone who has hung out even on the periphery of gaming circles online, the hate-speech/I’m-just-joking pirouette is extremely familiar. Online-gaming communities overlap heavily with the culture of anonymous, often-offensive message boards like 4chan. That channer culture is driven by the maxim of “doing it for the lulz.” That often means doing offensive things and using hate speech ironically in order to tick people off (otherwise known as triggering them).

As my colleague Jesse Singal described last year:

If you, a channer, post a meme in which Homer and Lisa Simpson are concentration camp guards about to execute Jewish prisoners, and I respond by pointing out that that’s fucked up, I’m the chump for getting upset. Nothing really matters to the average channer, at least not online. Feeling like stuff matters, in fact, is one of the original sins of “normies,” the people who use the internet but don’t really understand what it’s for (chaos and lulz) the way channers do. Normies, unlike channers — or the identity channers like to embrace — have normal lives and jobs and girlfriends and so on. They’re the boring mainstream. Normies don’t get it, and that’s why they’re so easily upset all the time. Triggering normies is a fundamental good in the chanverse.

Many of PewDiePie’s young gaming fans, literate in the ways of channer culture but maybe lacking in life experience, are likely to tell you that he was joking. This is, after all, the second step in the game: After you get criticized for making off-color, offensive, or hateful statements, brush them off as jokes that only normies, cucks, and snowflake SJWs might be offended by.

But the boundary between ironically deploying hate speech and actually meaning it is, at best, blurry, and to the people affected by that speech, essentially nonexistent.

In fact, this is the central tension between the growing, overlapping communities of gamers and channers and the big companies that would like to profit from their size. Chan culture is “pure” irony: A given image or phrase — or video of an anti-Semitic joke — means everything and nothing all at once, and channers and gamers will deny or destabilize any attempt to pin a particular meaning or set of beliefs to it. Responsibility or ownership over actions or speech essentially doesn’t exist in a world dominated by anonymous speakers trying to one-up each other for lulz. At the other end of the spectrum, profit-minded corporate brands have no room at all for irony in their understanding of the world and communication: Every phrase or symbol — or video of an anti-Semitic joke — can only have one meaning (the one understood by the bulk of the population). Because there are actual costs for malfeasance and misstep, brands and their managers are instilled with a sense of terrified responsibility for the actions and speech of themselves and their affiliates.

Is this the end of PewDiePie? Unlikely. Kjellberg is participating in a time-honored cycle. He (1) does something for lulz, (2) is (rightly) pressured to apologize, because lulz don’t scale to a subscriber base of more than 50 million viewers, and soon (3) he or some of his fans will gripe about the fact that they had to apologize at all, that they ticked off someone who was never going to get the joke in the first place but still wandered into their playpen. He’s still got his channel and his online celebrity. He’s walked back his comments and probably learned some lesson about being a shithead on public display. There are plenty of companies that will still pay him to feature their products. And, at some point soon, this whole cycle will start over again with someone else.

Why Disney and PewDiePie Were Doomed From the Start