In early 2017, when the Wall Street Journal called attention to the fact that PewDiePie made Nazi jokes on his YouTube channel, fans of the wildly popular YouTuber went to war.
Erin, now 16, had been watching PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, for years by then. She understood that when PewDiePie paid two strangers through a freelancing service called Fiverr to hold up a sign that read “Death to All Jews,” the stunt was intended as extreme humor meant to criticize Fiverr — even if she thought it crossed a line. But this wasn’t just some random online stranger. This is a person she felt she knew.
When, as a result of the Journal’s reporting, Kjellberg lost lucrative deals with YouTube, Kjellberg and his fans increasingly said that the media was conspiring to take him down by smearing him as a racist, that the reporting on him was out of context, driven by a rival industry’s jealousy.
Erin doesn’t always like how the media write about YouTube celebrities. But when Kjellberg said the n-word, in anger, while live-streaming himself playing a video game a few months later, Erin’s opinion of him changed.
Erin, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used out of fear of harassment, suddenly started to wonder who PewDiePie really was.
“It’s like if you had a pretty good friend of many years and you found out they were a racist: What would you do?” she said. She still watches his videos sometimes. But she no longer considers herself a fan.
Welcome to the PewDiePie forever war, the one that is, by popular telling, the media and YouTube’s corporate overlords against Kjellberg, his fans and the true YouTube “community.” But in interviews with The Washington Post, fans, journalists and experts argue that he’s obscuring a more important issue. With 78 million subscribers, more than any other YouTube channel, his audience is larger than that of most television shows — and this massive reach has given him responsibilities that he doesn’t always seem interested in taking seriously.
Julia Alexander, a reporter at the Verge who closely covers YouTube, knows this firsthand. After reporting last week that Kjellberg had recommended an anti-Semitic YouTube channel to his followers, her Twitter DMs were filling up with threats, insults and hateful messages.
“When he promotes certain ideologies, there’s a sense of responsibility he has to respond to it,” Alexander said in an interview. “Instead, what he likes to do is direct all that responsibility to the mainstream media.”
Kjellberg deleted the recommendation from his video in response to the Verge’s reporting and said that he gave the shout-out without knowing the full scope of the content on that channel.
But he made multiple, meme-laden YouTube videos about Alexander’s article and other reporting. The tone was defiant.
“This is it? This is all you have?” Kjellberg said, laughing into the camera during one of the videos where he discussed what he dismissively called his “oopsie.”
In addition to flooding Alexander’s DMs, fans lashed out in other ways. Someone hacked a portion of the advertising wing of the Wall Street Journal’s website to post a pro-PewDiePie message.
In another reality, the 2017 Wall Street Journal article would have ended Kjellberg. Instead, Kjellberg became YouTube culture’s antihero.
The mood on YouTube back then is pretty well summed up by a Philip DeFranco video. In it, DeFranco accused the mainstream media of “misrepresenting” PewDiePie to generate outrage. “They 100 percent have a bead on the forehead of PewDiePie,” DeFranco said. “Their intent was to take down and ruin Felix.”
Power, on YouTube, is permeable, and Kjellberg knows how to cross the membrane as needed: Sometimes he’s a creator who can motivate a large army of fans to raise $150,000 for charity in a matter of weeks. At other times, he says he’s just a guy running a small operation being beleaguered by powerful institutions who want to take him down.
The thing about being a fan of a YouTuber is that it makes you feel like you belong. When the media report on PewDiePie, for his fans, it can feel like an attack on a friend.
Dasha Abramova, 19, of Moscow said she’s been watching Kjellberg since she was 12. He was an inspiration for her career as an esports administrator for competitive games. “He went from renting a small apartment and didn’t have any particular job,” Abramova said. “He spent all his money on a new PC just to make videos. It’s kind of encouraging, how he was not giving up.”
When it comes to the most recent controversy, Abramova said the ultimate responsibility falls on his viewers. “I think that despite your age, you should think and decide for yourself, even who to watch and what to think about,” Abramova said.
Rod Breslau, a longtime gaming journalist who has a significant online following of his own, said that while he believes figures like PewDiePie should be covered in the media, “journalists need to consider that content creators are most of the time one or two people. They don’t have an entire corporation team of editors.”
He dismissed concerns that PewDiePie was radicalizing his following by sending them to YouTube videos created by racists. “I personally do not think that it has caused a negative effect,” Breslau said. “I don’t think that his jokes are making his fans actually racist or sexist. What I do think might be happening is that the effect is that his fans are more willing to make the same jokes.”
And that, for Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies, is exactly why it’s worth scrutinizing how PewDiePie interacts with the fringe parts of YouTube culture.
PewDiePie has become “the poster boy for the anti-PC crowd” on the Internet, Phillips said, as a result of these controversies. He appears to be using that crowd’s same logic: Offensive jokes don’t cause harm and are worth defending, and anyone who questions that claim is his enemy. Phillips said that in his mind, “he makes them [his critics] mad, and they are offended, and therefore he’s doing something right.” (Kjellberg did not reply to a request for comment sent to his business email.)
And as Kjellberg’s channel has shifted from video-game entertainment to commentary, YouTube’s large, influential network of right-wing personalities has seen an opportunity to reach his huge audience.
A few weeks ago, libertarian pundit Dave Rubin posted a Twitter video of Jordan Peterson saying he was subscribing to Kjellberg. He referenced a meme that has become popular with YouTubers who are rallying to keep PewDiePie as the most-subscribed creator on the platform, even as a rival channel from India threatens to overtake his title. Peterson, a psychology professor who became a viral star in the right-wing YouTube diaspora, is not an unknown entity to PewDiePie’s audience. Kjellberg once posted a video containing a favorable review of his book.
Alex Jones spent days last summer trying to get Kjellberg to collaborate with him, after the YouTuber followed Jones’s Twitter account. There’s little evidence that Kjellberg actually is an Infowars fan. But a lot of right-wing YouTube, including Jones, has felt that when Kjellberg talked about the media, he sounded an awful lot like them.
For Justin, a 33-year-old Kjellberg fan in Idaho, the endless cycle of controversies has left him somewhere in the middle. (Justin doesn’t use his full name online as a PewDiePie fan and spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld because of that.)
Justin generally feels that media coverage of Kjellberg is “clickbait.” But, he said, “the problem is that he keeps feeding into it.”
Algorithmic rabbit holes can send viewers from a relatively innocuous video to extremist content with just a few clicks. And when Kjellberg, say, sends his followers to a channel in that space — whether intending to or not — he’s giving that radicalization process a shortcut.
“You don’t want people to go from a PewDiePie video to Stormfront,” Justin said referring to a white-nationalist message board. “He just doesn’t seem to take the responsibility that you’d expect him to take.”
“It’s disheartening to see him keep placing the blame on other people. He’s not a 19-year-old kid,” said Alexander, the Verge reporter. Kjellberg is 29. Although, Alexander believes, Kjellberg has gotten better at filtering out extremist content from his channel in the past several months, he still has to do more.
“If he doesn’t take responsibility, we’ll be having this same conversation in six months.”