Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg, the most popular and well-paid vlogger on YouTube, has finally responded to the news that his contracts with Disney and YouTube Red were severed over his use of Nazi imagery in several videos. His statement leaves a lot to be desired.
In the video, titled "My Response," Kjellberg apologizes for the offensive material — in particular, for a video in which he paid a service $5 so that two men would dance around holding a sign that read "Death to All Jews" — saying that he will use the criticism as a "learning experience."
"I'm sorry for the words that I used as I know they offended people, and I admit that the joke itself went too far. I do strongly believe that you can joke about anything, but I also believe that there's a right way and a not-the-best way to joke about things. And I love to push boundaries, but I would consider myself a rookie comedian. And I've definitely made mistakes like this before. But it's always been a growing and learning experience for me and it's something that I actually learn to really appreciate and I think this whole situation has definitely been that for me and it's something I'm going to keep in mind moving forward."
PewDiePie's criticism of the media isn't without merit, but it's greatly over-exaggerated
Though Kjellberg apologizes for crossing a line, he frames the severing of his contracts as an unfair "attack" from the Wall Street Journal — an issue he thinks is rooted in the media world's fundamental misunderstanding of the YouTube community.
"Old-school media doesn't like internet personalities because they're scared of us," Kjellberg says. "We have so much influence and such a large voice and I don't think they understand it and that's why they keep this approach to us."
Kjellberg makes millions of dollars per year making silly videos for his 53 million YouTube subscribers. He is, by far, the YouTuber with the largest following. Kjellberg's argument is that the media world's only interest in this YouTube community is reacting in disbelief at the outlandish amounts of money people like him can make doing trivial things.
This critique of the media's treatment of Kjellberg is valid, to an extent. As YouTube's most popular personality, Kjellberg often becomes the figurehead for the YouTube community at large, despite the fact that this brash, so-called "anti-PC" comedy permeates the YouTube community at every level.
Kjellberg also takes issue with what he calls a lack of context for several of the examples of anti-Semitism identified by the Wall Street Journal. One of the nine, for example, involves Kjellberg asking his fans to stop posting images of swastikas using his app. The other examples are much more damning.
His language is not limited to off-color Hitler jokes. For example, Wired pointed to this video from Jan. 5, where you can hear Kjellberg say, "18, nigga!" while celebrating his placement on a list of attractive celebrities. It's important to remember that these videos are edited and do not represent some kind of one-time slip-up. That was a moment Kjellberg intentionally did not leave out. (You can see the moment in question starting at the 1:50 mark.)
PewDiePie's personal feud with the media prevents him from actually examining his own behavior
Kjellberg's apology video seems to miss the entire point of the majority of the criticism against him. PewDiePie spends most of the clip badmouthing the Wall Street Journal, using a he-who-smelt-it-dealt-it argument to argue that the WSJ is normalizing hatred by writing about PewDiePie's jokes.
"Some people have been saying that these jokes are normalizing hatred, regardless of if that's true or not. Spoilers: It's not — unless there's 53 million Nazis watching me for some reason. A personal attack like this to portray me as anti-Semitic is doing nobody a favor. ... Is there any hate in what I do? No. Absolutely not. Personally, I think they are the ones normalizing hatred because there is actual hatred out there. There is actual hatred out there, there [are] actual issues."
But, of course, using Nazi imagery and a racial slur for laughs is indeed normalizing hatred. As Jacob Clifton pointed out in a piece for BuzzFeed, Kjellberg is far from alone in using anti-Semitism as a stand-in for comedy. It's simply the norm for an online community that trades in rape jokes and racism — and if you get mad about it, you simply "don't get it." Every time Kjellberg casually drops a Nazi reference or a rape joke, he empowers others to use that language themselves.
Clifton argues that Kjellberg's brand of humor is a symptom of a large culture of toxic online behavior, that he is simply "one of 50 million and one drops in an ocean."
"Rewriting Felix Kjellberg's history to make him a monster — pulled along by the gravity of recent high-impact cautionary tales like those of Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer — is investigative laziness that obscures a much more important fact," Clifton wrote. "That 'edgelords,' the boys and men who group together online for the explicit proliferation of hate speech and misogyny, will almost inevitably keep pushing the line until they end up in a truly dark place."
This isn't simply speculation on the effects of his words, either. His words have translated into tangible examples of hate. For example, Polygon reported that the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer took notice of PewDiePie's use of Nazi imagery, seeing it as vehicle by which their ideologies might reach the masses.
"The guy has 52 million subscribers, compared to the No. 2 YouTuber [who] has 30 million. He is arguably the most watched person on the planet," The Daily Stormer said. "... In this video, he calls out the Jews for killing Jesus, and points out several times that Hitler did nothing wrong. At the very least, he is making the masses comfortable with our ideas." (It's worth noting that "Hitler did nothing wrong" is a 6-year-old 4chan meme — it's unlikely that Kjellberg was actually advocating for Hitler.)
Despite Kjellberg's previous apology in a Tumblr post for empowering these anti-Semitic groups, he continued to argue in his most recent video that his use of Nazi imagery is not "normalizing hatred."
But Kjellberg's brand of humor — intentional or not — feeds into these cultures of toxic masculinity that birth hatred-fueled movements like Gamergate and the so-called "alt-right," both of which built up momentum in online spaces like 4chan and Reddit. That's something Kjellberg seems to fail to realize — that his influence over this cult of "victim-heroes," as BuzzFeed puts it, makes him partially liable for their actions, regardless of his intentions.
In the apology, instead of acknowledging the effects of his language, he doubles down on accusations that the Wall Street Journal has a personal vendetta against him.
"It was an attack towards me," Kjellberg says in his video. "It was an attack by the media to try to discredit me, to decrease my influence and my economic worth."
But, if Kjellberg's apology video is any indication, he will continue being willfully ignorant about the effects of his words, and will simply frame any criticism against him as a personal attack. He'll continue seeing himself as a victim — just like the legions of hostile gamers who want to defend their culture against the forces of political correctness by employing misogyny, homophobia and racism to push the limits of free speech. And he'll continue to make millions through YouTube ads, regardless of how many companies sever ties with him.
"I'm still here," he says. "I'm still making videos. Nice try, Wall Street Journal. Try again, motherfuckers."