How Do You Solve a Problem Like PewDiePie?
Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie, is the most famous man on YouTube. His channel currently has over 57m subscribers and over 16bn views, he has published books, appeared on talk shows with Stephen Colbert, been listed as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, and has been credited as one of the defining figures of the modern internet age: A celebrity more beloved by his young fan-base than any moviestar, and an influencer capable of catapulting the sales of any game he plays into the millions.
PewDiePie is also a racist.
Earlier this year, Kjellberg was dropped from Maker Studios after a video wherein he paid two men via Fiverr a grand total of $5 to hold up a sign that said ‘DEATH TO ALL JEWS.’ He insisted the video was simply a joke, which didn’t stop neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups from praising him for doing so. In his apology, he said ‘the reaction and the outrage has been nothing but insanity.’ All of this was nothing new to people familiar with his work, wherein he frequently made bigoted comments and seemed to use the term ‘n****’ in one video. Now, that has escalated further. In a live-stream of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Kjellberg used the N word. Clear as day, he said the N word. He has since offered another weak apology.
The problem now is that the gaming community that Kjellberg inhabits seem hesitant to condemn the most powerful man in their circle. Indeed, some of them are defensive to the point of racism themselves. One infamous sad excuse for a journalist said the word just slipped out during a ‘heated gaming moment’, a justification so ludicrous that you wonder if The Onion has already used it. I’ve heard every excuse in the book to explain why Kjellberg isn’t racist for making anti-Semitic jokes and using the N word: It just slipped out in the heat of the moment; it’s just a word, it doesn’t mean anything; well why can’t he say the word if black people can, isn’t that racist itself; this is just an agenda against the anti-establishment underdogs of YouTube who are taking on the mainstream media, and so on. The one excuse that revealed more than the person probably intended was the one that sums up the problem at hand.
PewDiePie isn’t racist - this is just a thing that happens a lot in the gaming world.
He’s not wrong either. Gaming has a problem. It has long been poisoned by this and has allowed that toxicity to take root in the very foundations of their community. You may still have to explain to your parents who PewDiePie is, but he has over 57m subscribers at his beck and call, meaning he wields gargantuan power and influence not only over gaming but online culture at large. His viewers tend to skew young and male, and his success spawned countless copycats. The precedent set by an incident like this, wherein a wildly popular entertainer says the N word and his supporters shrug, will exacerbate an already twisted problem.
Things are bad enough in the world: Racists in the White House, white supremacists on the streets and the sudden legitimising of Nazis under the guise of free speech. YouTube itself is rife with harassment, abuse and extreme right-wing rhetoric. There is no ‘heated gaming moment’ that can justify the use of racial slurs. Sometimes we say things we wouldn’t usually say when we’re angry, but if the first word you reach for in that situation is a racist one, the chances are that word was already on your mind, on the tip of your tongue, in your frequent vocabulary. It’s abhorrent that anyone feels the need to not only excuse racism but normalise it as an expected behaviour in a community where people play video games.
Defending Kjellberg empowers that bigotry. It makes it easier for like-minded bigots in gaming and pop culture to feel as if they can indulge in racism because they know hoards of people will defend them, regardless of how wrong it is. They may not directly condone the racism or bigoted slurs, but they will position themselves as a false middle ground, the ‘rational’ voice in the discourse who thinks that yea, the N word is bad, but really, haven’t we all been there, and isn’t the real enemy the evil mainstream media who won’t let poor beleaguered PewDiePie live without having his good name dragged through the mud for a little slip-up like the N word?
It should bother these people in the gaming and vlogging worlds more that Kjellberg has become such a liability. For many, he is the face of YouTube - and that’s something the site itself has been happy to play with for promotional and PR purposes - and what he says goes. YouTube already has problems with its lack of proper moderation and seeming lack of concern for tackling abuse and harassment, leaving such tasks up to robots and pretending they care about fostering an open community. Kjellberg is the lightning rod and his actions and words amplify the mess that’s already there, only the chances are that people will actually take some action against him where they wouldn’t bother with lesser known figures.
Advertisers will flee the site because they won’t want to be associated with racists and the people who support them. Video game companies will stop giving out review copies for fear that doing so will be an implicit endorsement of the racism being spewed by someone playing their game. The makers of Firewatch have already announced they’ll place a DMCA strike-down of Kjellberg’s review of their game because they don’t wish to be associated with him in any way. Regardless of what you think of that tactic, and it has some terrible implications for Fair Use, it’s an active stand against Kjellberg’s behaviour and they seem to be one of the few people doing so. I don’t think they’ll be the last, though. As noted by Jim Sterling, if Kjellberg wanted to fight that DMCA in court, a loss would send ripples throughout the entire ecosystem of YouTube and criticism, and the sad thing is his fans will probably be more indignant over that than him being racist.
Kjellberg’s latest non-apology was full of the usual empty rhetoric: Being sorry if he offended anyone, insisting it was just him being idiotic, and no real understanding of what he’s done. This has always been the PewDiePie problem, one YouTube fostered and now seems eager to ignore. He’s their biggest star and probably will remain so for the time being. The N word won’t be the tipping point it should be because how can 57m subscribers be wrong? You cannot create a sustainable public image or business model on ‘JK LOL’, but you can create a cult of personality around it, and for Felix Kjellberg, PewDiePie has made him too big to fail.