Why Do So Many People Hate PewDiePie?
Who is PewDiePie?
Born Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg in 1989, the Swede launched his YouTube channel as PewDiePie in 2010. (He’d started one under PewDie in 2006, but forgot the password.) Within three years, his video gaming and commentary content rocketed him to the top of YouTube’s list of most-subscribed channels. He had the Midas touch: whenever he gave a game a positive review, sales flew through the roof. Time named him one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” in 2016, when the term “influencer” really began to stick among YouTube, Instagram, and other social media personalities.
Over the next several years, PewDiePie and the record label T-Series’ channel played King-of-the-Hill in both viewer and subscription rankings, inspiring the “Subscribe to PewDiePie” meme. In early 2019, “Pewd”‘s videos collectively surpassed the 20-billion-views benchmark.
Okay, now that we know who he is—at least publicly—we’ll take a dive into the punchbowl that is the internet culture’s zeitgeist. Watch out for Mr. Kjellberg—he’s the guy in the brown bodysuit!
Does PewDiePie ‘dog whistle’ the alt-right?
2012: PewDiePie responded to fans and media critics who called him out for rape jokes. Many considered his apology to be genuine—after all, he did stop making light of sexual assault—but others felt it was more of a “well, nobody complained before, but (sigh) ok, fine” type of response; more of a PR move than a genuine shift in thinking.
August 2016: Only four months after his Time nod, PewDiePie got into a kerfuffle with Twitter. After removing his official verification status, he created a second account from where he linked a spoof article claiming that he lost his Twitter creds due to “suspected relations with ISIS.” This story went viral; while most internet-savvy people and PewDiePie fans knew he was just trolling, mainstream media lost their minds. Then, Twitter shut down PewDiePie’s main feed, prompting #SavePewDiePie to trend across social media.
January 11, 2017: PewDiePie posted a video in which two Indian men hold up a sign reading, “Death to All Jews.” According to the (very wealthy) YouTuber, he hired the men on the international freelancing site Fiverr to find out what people will do for money, but he never expected the men to take him up on the gig. In other words, he tried to explain it as a dare. Upon hearing about this, the Wall Street Journal did some digging into PewDiePie’s channel and reported on this, and eight other incidents, in which his videos contained anti-Semitic references and/or Nazi symbolism. Disney, which had business dealings with PewDiePie, promptly bailed on their relationship with the Swedish star.
September 2017: While live-streaming a video game session, guess who dropped the N-bomb? And not for the first time, either. This raised discussions about whether it’s offensive if a white person “slips” and directs the epithet at another person whose ethnicity is (reportedly) unknown.
December 9, 2018: PewDiePie gave a shout-out to a certain controversial YouTuber, complimenting his video essays that often include misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic themes. Critics of PewDiePie’s endorsement point out that due to his “liking” of certain videos on the channel, he was aware of the content, and that he would have known that his support would boost viewership. Which it did, by 15,000 new subscribers in fewer than 24 hours.
By this time, PewDiePie had become the unofficial mascot of the Alt-right—right up there with the appropriated Pepe the Frog—as far as those at least slightly to the left were concerned. He was criticized for the social media accounts he followed, some of which belonged to known anti-feminists, white nationalists, notable alt-right personalities, and unapologetic racists. (Here’s a screenshot, taken before he purged his list of followers). He also received praise by members of a prominent white supremacy forum who interpreted PewDiePie’s apparent leanings as supportive of their cause.
Which leads us to…
March 15, 2019: A mass-murderer started off his live-stream rampage with the phrase, “Subscribe to PewDiePie!” As mainstream media scrambled to make sense of this statement and the mass-murderer’s manifesto, PewDiePie came forward with a heartfelt statement condemning the attack. Investigative journalist and terrorism authority Robert Evans of the Bellingcat blog and Behind The Bastards podcast wrote the event was pretty much a grand scale “sh*tpost,” a red herring to run politicians, the media, and the public in giant frantic circles of
Evans said that by dragging PewDiePie into the whole matter and forcing him to acknowledge the act, the killer exposed his “meme” to an enormous audience, and the PewDiePie/Terrorist/Alt-Right discussion caught fire on platforms usually reserved for gamers and teens.
Is PewDiePie accountable for spreading bigotry?
In all fairness, he’s never intentionally called for violence (the Indian experiment notwithstanding), and he’s deemed his past gaffes as “idiotic.” If he were ten years younger and a tenth as famous, most of us would shrug him off with an “Eh. Dumb kid” and move on. Prince Harry’s Nazi costume incident is an excellent example of how high-profile celebrities can make spectacularly stupid decisions, apologize, and benefit from the life lesson. Is it all about how willing we are to forgive our heroes?
At the time of publication, his channel has 91 million subscribers. Some have called his channel the “gateway to the alt-right,” and much of his fandom is made up of kids whose media intake is—yep, we’re going there—largely unsupervised. As for the grown-ups? We’ve linked up plenty of resources for our readers to decide for themselves and for their children, but beware! You can’t go down the PewDiePie rabbit hole without encountering some pretty dark side-tunnels… and with three words, a certain Australian gunman handed us a headlamp.