PewDiePie’s Fall Shows the Limits of ‘LOL JK’

YouTube star PewDiePie’s fall from grace riled up his 53 million subscribers, but unless you’re a Gen-Z videogamer, you may find the name splashed across many a headline this week unfamiliar. Lucky you. After The Wall Street Journal reported on his pattern of using anti-Semitic jokes in his videos, Disney’s Maker Studios cut ties with the internet celeb, and YouTube canceled the second season of his streaming reality show. People might applaud what look like swift measures, but the moves are long overdue.

PewDiePie–the online alter ego of 27-year-old Swede Felix Kjellberg–is famous for two things: outsized reactions to the games he plays, and trolling. Given the impossibility of knowing whether he means what he says, you can’t always know how to respond when he does something like, say, hire people to hold up a sign saying “Death to all Jews.” His fans take him seriously but not literally; his critics take him literally but not seriously. Sort of like another divisive figure in the news these days.

But PewDiePie started racking up questionable jokes almost from the start of his YouTube career nearly seven years ago. Given that long tradition, and the fact he recently claimed that YouTube discriminates against him because he’s white, his fanbase goes beyond gamers. PewDiePie has become a bona fide white-supremacist hero.

Hiding Behind “LOL JK”

PewDiePie enjoys extraordinary popularity. His YouTube audience exceeds the subscriber base of Hulu, Apple Music, and The New York Times combined. Fans adore him because he embodies so much of what YouTube–and, really, the internet–loves: zaniness, rough-at-the-edges authenticity, and deadpan mockery.

That mix, though, often leads to a classic internet problem. “Offline you have context clues. You know if someone is going to punch you in the face, right?” says Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture. “But on the internet, you can’t tell if something was intended as a joke or a sincere expression.” Offensive “humor” further confuses the mix: While it’s important to call out things like racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia, doing so plays into trolls’ hands. They insist they aren’t spouting hatred, only proving that you can’t take a joke.

PewDiePie long ago mastered this move. He uses “gay,” “retard,” and “autistic” as playful insults. He makes plenty of rape jokes. And he spews out all kinds of racist stuff, too. Take, for example, his commentary in this 2011 let’s-play video that includes the Swedish version of the N-word.

In the subtitles, he translates the word as “black,” but it’s hard to argue the word he uses is anything but a racial slur. (The Swedish Ornithological Society even renamed birds to eliminate any reference to the term.) Another Swedish YouTube user pointed this out and criticized PewDiePie for using the term– but PewDiePie’s supporters, who call themselves the Bro Army, didn’t care. Neither did YouTube.

He used the N-word again, in English, in this video posted last month.

His fans’ negative reactions spawned two hashtag movements on Twitter: #pewdiepieisover and the more gleeful #pewdiepieisoverparty. But this is Twitter, so of course the racist elements of the Bro Army quickly co-opted them.

PewDiePie’s casual offensiveness doesn’t end with the N-word. In another let’s-play video, he mentions that he can’t see people when they’re “too black,” and fans mention that he’s been known to say that “black things” scare him.

This 2017 video, in which he decided whether he would “smash,” pass on, or sell particular people into slavery is basically a loaded baked potato of racist and misogynist tropes.

In this face-swapping video he repeatedly uses an image of actress Leslie Jones to represent Harambe, the gorilla killed in the Cincinnati zoo last year. I shouldn’t have to explain what’s wrong with that.

None of this means that anything that offends anyone is off limits as a joke. But jokes that goof on racism are different than jokes that rely on race–a fine line to be sure. Even comics known to get away with it (like Sarah Silverman) sometimes miss the mark. What PewDiePie does in these videos is the 4chan version: repeat racist terms and insist they have outlived their offensiveness and are now hilarious.

But PewDiePie recently went beyond racist joking. In December 2016 he announced plans to delete his YouTube channel once it reached 50 million subscribers because the platform had changed its homepage, a move that meant his viewers saw fewer videos, and less often. Coming from so towering a figure, this was a big deal. Bigger still? His reasoning. In a jittery rant, he claimed that “YouTube wants my channel gone. They want someone else on top. 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–better known by her YouTube alias, Superwoman–is a Canadian-Indian rapper and comedian whose songs, parodies, and calls for positivity and #GirlLove have won her more than 11 million subscribers. Days after his rant, facing withering criticism, PewDiePie claimed everything he said about Singh was satire. The belated “LOL JK” is, of course, a defense favored by Milo Yiannopoulos and other trolls, one that raises questions of intent versus effect. “It’s the impact that matters,” Phillips says. “I think we’ve reached an era where that ‘I was just trolling’ excuse needs to be retired.”

Becoming an Alt-Right Darling

PewDiePie’s reaction, though, also took a step in a new direction. By claiming that media outlets taking his words literally amounted to slander–and by calling publications that did so “the clearest form of cancer”–he added media paranoia to his recipe of open prejudice and dog-whistling, making him an immediate poster boy for white supremacists. Check out the banner leading neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin’s The Daily Stormer, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the top hate site in America.

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The image has been up for weeks, says Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “With PewDiePie, the question is, How did it take them so long?” she says of Disney and YouTube dumping PewDiePie. “Neo-Nazis have been loving this guy. And because he has this massive following, they see those people as supporting their views.”

If anything, Disney and YouTube elevated PewDiePie’s standing in the so-called alt-right movement’s eyes by sending him packing. Just look at the alt-right’s preferred social media platform, Gab.

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So, intentionally or not, the YouTube celebrity stepped into the political arena. “There has always been a strong feedback loop between public figures, broadcast media, and social media activity,” says Anthony McCosker, an expert on digital and social media at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. “I think the current push toward nationalism, tapping into exclusionary and racist sentiment, is driven and emboldened by online activity.”

This all places much of the responsibility on Disney and YouTube; chipping away from PewDiePie’s already staggering annual income ($15 million in 2016) doesn’t prove much to anyone. “They’re handmaidens to some pretty ugly sentiments,” Beirich says. “YouTube has refused to develop AI systems to hunt down extremist material. We at SPLC have been doing their legwork and reporting it for them, but that’s an inefficient system.”

You’ll have trouble finding consensus on what to do with someone like PewDiePie, especially because his reach is so global. In Austria this week, authorities arrested a man for dressing as Hitler in the Nazi leader’s hometown. Should PewDiePie enjoy special privileges because his Hitler costume appeared online? In America, satire has always been protected speech–and there are overwhelmingly compelling reasons to keep it that way–but in a time of “alternative facts,” satire becomes increasingly hard to identify.

You can’t smooth the ripples PewDiePie’s videos created, but you can slow their spread. PewDiePie’s business model revolves around grabbing viewers’ attention, holding it, and keeping them coming back for more. The real #pewdiepieisoverparty will happen when people start clicking Unsubscribe.

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