In the YouTube clip, a pair of South Asian men wearing costume loincloths held up a banner that read, “DEATH TO ALL JEWS.”
They danced and laughed, while in a separate screen the YouTuber named Felix Kjellberg (also known by his stage name PewDiePie) covered his mouth with his hands. “I don’t feel too proud of this, I’m not going to lie,” Kjellberg said in the Jan. 11 video, which had been viewed more than 9.9 million times.
Kjellberg, a 27-year-old Swedish comedian, had paid the men to hold up the sign. “I’m not anti-Semitic or whatever it’s called,” he said as he watched. “It was a funny meme, and I didn’t think it would work.”
Kjellberg is the most popular YouTube star on the planet. His videos have been viewed collectively more than 14 billion times. With such a massive audience came lucrative advertising and business deals, working with YouTube and the Walt Disney Co.
That was, until this week, when both YouTube and Disney ended their business ties with one of their most famous personalities.
A YouTube spokesperson confirmed to The Washington Post on Tuesday that the video-sharing site has decided to cancel the release of the second season of Kjellberg’s original series, “Scare PewDiePie.” YouTube is also removing the PewDiePie channel from Google Preferred, a service that shows advertisers top-performing videos
On Monday, Maker Studios, a collection of thousands of YouTube channels that Disney acquired for $500 million in 2014, dropped Kjellberg. Disney had given Kjellberg free rein over his own YouTube network, called Revelmode, which fell under the umbrella of Maker Studios. Kjellberg was the most watched personality in the studio.
The decisions by YouTube and Disney come after a Wall Street Journal investigation highlighted the Jan. 11 video, as well as eight others that included anti-Jewish jokes or Nazi images. Viewers could not access the Jan. 11 video over the weekend but on Tuesday it was again made public.
Kjellberg “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,” the Journal reported. The newspaper also noted that he played the Nazi Party anthem in a Jan. 14 video before he bowed “to swastika in a mock resurrection ritual”; in a Feb. 5 video, Kjellberg gave a “very brief Nazi salute with a Hitler voice-over saying ‘Sieg Heil’ and the text ‘Nazi Confirmed.’ ”
YouTube declined to comment further. But the video-sharing company does not allow content that violates its hate speech guidelines and encourages viewers to report hateful content.
“There is a fine line between what is and what is not considered to be a hate speech,” the policy states. “For instance, it is generally okay to criticize a nation-state, but not okay to post malicious hateful comments about a group of people solely based on their ethnicity.”
The videos in question also appear to have violated YouTube’s advertising guidelines. Videos that the company considers inappropriate for advertising includes those that show “violence, including display of serious injury and events related to violent extremism.”
Kjellberg will not lose his YouTube channel, which has more than 53 million subscribers, and he can continue to monetize his videos.
Maker Studios explained its decision to sever ties with Kjellberg in a statement to Variety. “Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate. Maker Studios has made the decision to end our affiliation with him going forward.”
Kjellberg’s videos are mostly popular with a young, under-20 viewership. His YouTube clips regularly accrue hits in the millions. A December video, “DELETING MY CHANNEL,” was watched 29.2 million times. Kjellberg, who became famous for playing video games while providing frenetic commentary, has since diversified his videos into skits and bizarre performance comedy.
A Jan. 10 video, for instance, showed Kjellberg and another twenty-something man slicing open a Furby with a hot knife before they incinerated the toy with small blowtorches. Kjellberg’s mother, as The Washington Post noted in September, has gone on record as not being able to identify what made her son’s work comical.
The video that included the men holding an anti-Semitic sign was the result of Kjellberg’s stunt using Fiverr, a website where users can pay freelancers small sums to perform odd jobs. The duo who recorded the video, the Fiverr Funny Guys, apologized Jan. 16, saying that they did not understand English well enough to grasp the meaning of the banner.
Kjellberg, in a post on his Tumblr account on Sunday, argued that his viewers would not construe the videos as attacks on Jewish people. “I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel.”
He denied that he was trying to make “any serious political commentary,” he wrote. “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.”
Perhaps his immediate YouTube audience found the clip to be in jest, but observers elsewhere interpreted the video as anti-Semitic. The Daily Stormer, the white nationalist and neo-Nazi blog, posted an article Jan. 12 applauding Kjellberg. “He could be doing all this only to cause a stir things up and get free publicity,” the Stormer wrote in a now-unavailable post (except via a cached version). “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, since the effect is the same; it normalizes Nazism, and marginalizes our enemies.”
Such normalization troubled Jonathan Vick, an Anti-Defamation League associate director who spoke to the Wall Street Journal regarding PewDiePie’s videos. “Just putting it out there brings it more and more into the mainstream,” Vick told the Journal.
The Washington Post was unable to reach Kjellberg. On his Tumblr, Kjellberg acknowledged that “these jokes were ultimately offensive.”
Kjellberg distanced himself from the Daily Stormer and other anti-Semitic groups. “As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people,” the YouTube star wrote, “to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way.”
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