life in pixels

Why YouTube’s Biggest Star Can’t Be Canceled

Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie. Photo: Screenshot via YouTube

Last week, the Swedish YouTube star Felix Kjellberg, known to his fans as PewDiePie, uploaded an edition of “Pew News,” a regular series in which he riffs on recent world news events. And since Kjellberg’s world is YouTube, this generally means news about the events, fans, and stars of the video-sharing platform. He spent most of this video discussing the widely despised “YouTube Rewind” official year-end video and a hilarious meme in which people like Jordan Peterson and Logan Paul instruct their followers to subscribe to PewDiePie in order to maintain his position as the most-subscribed-to independent creator on YouTube. (A channel of Bollywood videos had been threatening his dominance.) At the end of Pew News videos, Kjellberg takes care to use this enormous platform — he has more than 75 million subscribers — to promote other, smaller YouTube creators. In this video, he shouted out a creator called “E;R,” who, Kjellberg said, “does great videos.”

As many people almost immediately pointed out, E;R’s “great videos” include, for example, “uninterrupted footage of an Adolf Hitler speech overlaid with anti-Semitic cartoons.” The video that Kjellberg said that he, in particular, “really enjoyed,” was intercut with footage of Charlottesville protester Heather Heyer’s murder last year — as a joking way of attempting to illustrate the arcane rules of the anime Death Note. “The truth about why this took so long is because I thought it was so funny to call Black L ‘Niglet’ throughout all my recordings.” E;R explained in the now-removed caption. (The slur doesn’t appear in the video, which E;R rerecorded for fear of YouTube censorship.) By Tuesday afternoon, Kjellberg had apologized for promoting the video, but the mini-drama didn’t seem to have mattered much for the subscribe-to-PewDiePie campaign: The day before, he’d surpassed YouTube Sports to become the third-most-subscribed-to channel across all of YouTube. (Only YouTube Gaming and YouTube Music are bigger.)

In general, PewDiePie’s frequent controversies seem to have no real effect on his popularity. In 2017, at a little over 50 million subscribers, he lost a lucrative partnership with Disney over a series of videos in which he paid Indian men on the gig website Fiverr — as a sort of black-humored social experiment — to record themselves holding signs saying things like “Death to All Jews”; later that year, he called an opponent a “fucking nigger” while livestreaming a video game. And yet, Kjellberg remains YouTube’s biggest star, to the tune of 75 million subscribers, 19 billion views, tens of millions of dollars, and the adoration of millions of adolescents worldwide. If you come from outside YouTube, where letting a single N-bomb slip can be enough to end your career permanently, this sequence of events is baffling: How can someone flirt so frequently and so explicitly with racist slurs and anti-Semitic jokes and thrive?

One quick and easy answer is “because YouTube lets him.” There are reasons YouTube doesn’t want to get deeply involved, both cynical (he’s a huge, engagement-driving star) and earnest (YouTube feels uncomfortable wielding its absolute power over its own platform so nakedly) — but it’s important to keep in mind that the company has both the practical and the formal power to remove Kjellberg from its site, or find other ways to punish or limit him, the way a movie studio or television network might distance themselves from an anti-Semitic movie star.

But Kjellberg’s continued popularity lies not just in YouTube’s hands-off attitude toward his content, but also in the culture created and cultivated by the nature of the platform — really, by the nature of any advertising-supported social-media platform.

PewDiePie, like other major YouTube stars, relies on the parasocial relationships he builds with his fans to maintain his status as an influencer. He feels less like a distant celebrity to be worshipped, the way a pop star might, and more like a close friend. His viewers see him daily; they know his habits and preferences; they even have something that approaches conversation — albeit entirely one-sided — in the rambling direct-to-camera monologues that characterize videos like Pew News. When their favorite YouTuber is accused of anti-Semitism, his millions of subscribers respond in much the same way friends of a movie star accused of anti-Semitism might: I know him; he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body!

This dynamic is exacerbated by an evolving sense of persecution on the part of YouTubers and their audiences. As the researcher Crystal Abidin wrote in an excellent explainer of the reaction to Kjellberg’s anti-Semitic joke sign videos, many YouTubers interpreted Wall Street Journal articles about Kjellberg not as neutral reporting but as a tactic in a “a struggle between Influencers and legacy media more generally.” And why shouldn’t they? By the logic of platform rewards systems — which value high-engagement figures — it makes sense to imagine that, as Abidin puts it, “legacy media is capitalizing on the digitally-native popularity of PewDiePie to reel in clicks on their articles,” or that “WSJ’s intention and incentive is primarily monetary rather than social justice.” If your frame of reference is YouTube, you might understand outrage over Kjellberg’s recommendation of E;R as a cynical attack on your close friend, undertaken to draft off of his success in a race for clicks. (That YouTubers, no matter how financially successful, often lack or decline the elaborate and cushioning managerial infrastructure of the established entertainment industry, and must deal with negative attention directly, only increases their sense of being under attack.) Stories about what Kjellberg has done become, to people in the world of YouTube, stories about what is being done to Kjellberg.

Such a persecution complex is a natural consequence of lives and businesses conducted on a contemporary megaplatform like YouTube. One of the core conditions of platform life is precarity: No matter how successful you are in the platform’s terms — no matter how many followers or how many views — you could at any moment find yourself on the wrong end of some algorithmic sorting process, left out of some recommendation system, or even removed entirely for reasons you weren’t made aware of and can’t understand. The business you built could be ruined; the life you’d enjoyed leading irrevocably changed. Platforms can be powerful democratizing tools, but the processes by which decisions are (or aren’t) made are on every level intentionally opaque. (For Google to reveal the “rules” of YouTube’s various discovery mechanisms in too much detail would be to give away the game, if not the entire business.) When your livelihood and emotional life exist at the whim of a distant and impersonal alien god prone to reshaping your world without warning, it’s hard not to feel victimized — a lesson illustrated during congressional hearings this past week when lawmakers more or less accused Google CEO Sundar Pichai of rigging the results of Google searches for their names.

Kjellberg, for his part, is seen as a standard-bearer for the oppressed YouTuber subject to the whims of YouTube’s corporate masters — a symbol of the ongoing tension between YouTube and the culture that it spawned. As YouTube attempts to grow beyond its devoted adolescent fan base and secure its reputation as a safe and friendly advertising vehicle for corporate clients, that fan base is beginning to feel abandoned, if not swept under the rug. What’s at stake, as far as these YouTubers are concerned, is more than just ensuring their favorite accounts retain their prominence — it’s the purpose, direction, and identity of YouTube. (There are some unfortunate resonances with the digital revanchism of 4chan and other longtime internet trolls, whose anger at the encroachment of meatspace norms into their wild online spaces helped drive their politics far to the right.)

For more than a year, anger has roiled YouTube’s various communities over shifting and unclear ad policies that prevent YouTubers from monetizing videos that might upset advertisers. This past week, YouTube’s official year-end video, traditionally a showcase for stars developed on the platform, featured Will Smith and John Oliver, but not Kjellberg or Logan Paul — the YouTube megastar who launched his 2018 by uploading video of himself finding a dead body in Japan’s “suicide forest.” (The Rewind video is now one of the two most-disliked on the website, a fact that Kjellberg covered with some glee in the very Pew News edition that got him in so much trouble.) Even the out-of-control “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme that got Jordan Peterson to recommend Kjellberg is a function of this tension — where Kjellberg himself stands in for the independent, fan-beloved creator reasserting territorial dominance over the encroachment of a corporate account like the Bollywood channel T-Series.

We’re all pretty familiar at this point with the psychological process by which a once-prominent class of people, subject to a confusing and unaccountable regulatory regime, choose to overlook or defend a pattern of bigoted behavior from a televisually charismatic figure promising to maintain imagined community identity. Kjellberg’s continued success, seen through this lens, is maybe less surprising. But I don’t think it makes it any less worrying. Not because he’s a “bad influence” or malign actor in particular — though he very well may be — but because his status as the standard-bearer of True YouTube gives his position in broader political debates an outsize weight. As Abidin writes, “millions of young followers for whom social media such as YouTube were primarily for entertainment value are now being seduced into joining camps and participating in global discursive debates in defence of/in opposition to Influencers” like Kjellberg; he, through fights over his behavior and his position within the YouTube space, is something like a gateway drug to bigger political battles over free speech, the role of media, and diversity. And if you start from the position that PewDiePie is great and his critics unfair (and possibly disingenuous), you may soon find yourself taking on some unfortunate new political positions — especially since, as the academic Becca Lewis extensively documented in a report for Data & Society earlier this year, the far right has developed a considerable influence network on YouTube poised to take advantage of exactly this dynamic. Until we find a way to change the culture of megaplatforms, that’s probably not going to go away. And neither will PewDiePie.

Why YouTube’s Biggest Star Can’t Be Canceled