Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie, a.k.a. YouTube’s biggest star, spoke for the first time Thursday about his extremely bad week in the spotlight. He was apologetic and furious.
“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,” Kjellberg said in a video posted to his channel on Thursday, four days after a bunch of Nazi jokes on his channel became a huge news story that had some very real consequences for his career. “I do strongly believe that you can joke about anything, but I also believe there’s a right way, and not the best way, to joke about things.”
That was from the apologetic part. But the majority of the 11-minute response Kjellberg posted was devoted to his feelings about the media who broke the story about him in the first place. The media has only been interested in writing about the millions of dollars he makes as a YouTuber, he said. They don’t “get” him, and now they are taking him out of context as a “personal attack.”
In case you don’t remember, here is what happened: On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published an article identifying nine PewDiePie videos that contained anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery. For example, in one recent video, Kjellberg paid two South Asian men via the freelancer site Fiverr to hold up a sign that read, “Death to all Jews.” He paid another Fiverr freelancer to dress up as Jesus and film himself saying “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
The Wall Street Journal also revealed that, as a result of them bringing these videos to the attention of Disney, the YouTuber would lose his longtime relationship with the entertainment company’s Maker Studios. YouTube itself then more or less disavowed its biggest star the next day, canceling the release of the next season of a reality series he made in partnership with YouTube Red, and revoking his inclusion in a lucrative, premium advertising program.
“If there’s anything I learned about the media from being a public figure is how they blatantly misrepresent people for their own personal gain, and even viciously attack people just to further themselves,” Kjellberg said in his response video. Later, he called the entire Wall Street Journal piece, and the ensuing media attention, “an attack by the media to try to discredit me, to decrease my influence, and my economic [success]. That’s what this was.”
The full video is here, with an obligatory language warning for this and any other PewDiePie videos embedded in this piece.
Whether this response surprises you or not probably depends on how familiar you are with what Kjellberg does on YouTube. He is usually described in news articles as that guy who got famous and rich for filming himself making jokes and screaming a lot while playing scary video games. And sure, Kjellberg filmed himself playing his way through the extremely scary “Resident Evil 7″ a couple of weeks ago, just as pretty much every other YouTuber who emulated his early success to find their own audiences did. But Kjellberg, who calls his fans “bros” and often vlogs as if he is in conversation with them, has long used his channel to complain about and criticize the institutions that, he feels, don’t respect or understand him or his like-minded fans.
The media has long been one of these institutions, as has YouTube itself. In December, he announced that he was going to delete his channel at 50 million subscribers (he didn’t) because of some changes he didn’t like to how YouTube shows videos to people on the site. In the video, which has 22 million views, he claims that “YouTube is trying to kill my channel.”
“It’s because I’m always complaining to them. I don’t have family-friendly content. I clickbait too much, huh, is that it?” He keeps going: “They want someone really extremely cancerous, like Lilly Singh. I’m white. Can I make that comment? But I do think that’s a problem.”
Singh, a.k.a. IISuperwomanII, is a Canadian-Indian YouTube personality. In a follow-up video, Kjellberg said that those who took his comments about her negatively (and the insinuation that YouTube was trying to kill his channel because he’s white) were unable to understand that he was just joking about it.
That move should sound familiar. Saying something racist or otherwise offensive and then responding to outrage by, essentially, accusing the opponent of not getting the joke, is a core part of the Internet that has helped to make PewDiePie a success.
Kjellberg has recently disavowed the support of white supremacists in the alt-right, whose online culture also relies on the same orientation toward offense. He had to do that because there had been recent speculation among the alt-right that maybe Kjellberg was secretly one of their own — or that he might be about to come around to their worldview.
The Daily Stormer, a white nationalist blog, cheered on PewdiePie last month, writing that “it doesn’t matter” whether the YouTuber’s anti-Jewish jokes were genuine or simply attention-seeking trolling, “since the effect is the same; it normalizes Nazism, and marginalizes our enemies.” Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Vick, an Anti-Defamation League associate director, argued that Kjellberg’s jokes were having this normalizing effect, because “Just putting it out there brings it more and more into the mainstream.”
On Thursday, Kjellberg appeared to respond to this too, by saying he believed it was his critics who were normalizing racism, and not him. “They are the ones normalizing hatred because there is actual hatred out there,” he said. “Instead of celebrating my show getting canceled, why don’t we focus on that instead?”