The freedom of the Internet is fantastic and all, but there really is something to be said for the standards and controls enforced by traditional media.
We were all reminded of this again last week when YouTube star Felix Kjellberg – better known by his online handle, PewDiePie – let loose a nasty racial slur in a clip of him playing the popular online battle royale shooter PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It was too harsh for publication in a family newspaper, but suffice to say it involved an F-bomb plus that most controversial of racial epithets. And it was brought on simply because he was having a hard time shooting a random player from a distance. He doesn’t even seem to notice what he’s said until a few seconds later, when his expression changes slightly and he adds, chuckling, “I don’t mean that in a bad way.” Whatever that means.
But it was too late. It was out there. And social media did what it does in situations like this. The highest paid YouTuber of 2016 – he now has an estimated net worth of about $20 million – was raked over the coals by gamers and non-gamers alike, many of whom were already fed up with his questionable behaviour in past videos, including a post earlier this year in which viewers saw his reaction to a pair of men holding a sign with an anti-Semitic slogan (which eventually cost him a lucrative partnership with Disney). Already notorious within mainstream media, dozens of sites – including The Guardian, CBS, Wired, and Variety – reported on this latest outburst.
But perhaps the most notable condemnation came from within the industry. Campo Santo, developer of the acclaimed narrative adventure Firewatch, filed a copyright takedown notice for Kjellberg to remove videos of him playing its game. Studio founder Sean Vanaman said on Twitter, “I am sick of this child getting more and more chances to make money off of what we make.” The legal ground for such an action is shaky at best, but Kjellberg quickly capitulated, apparently understanding that this was a fight that he could not win in the court of public opinion.
What’s more, he went so far as to issue a public apology on his channel. “I always find it extremely immature and stupid, and I hate how I now, personally, fed into that part of gaming as well,” said the 27-year-old Swede in a 90-second response to the criticism he received for his outburst. “It was something that I said in the heat of the moment. I said the worst word I could possibly think of, and it just sort of slipped out.” He goes on to say it seems as though he’s learned nothing from past mistakes, and that he’s sorry for continuing to disappoint his fans.
But it’s his fans that are perhaps the most troubling part of all of this. Despite his continued offences, Kjellberg’s subscriber numbers have grown by millions this year alone, now sitting well over 57 million. His channel still has the most subscribers of any on YouTube. And each new video he produces is still receiving millions of views. He continues to be, by any meaningful measure, YouTube’s biggest original star.
This tacit decision by millions of people to simply overlook his unacceptable behaviour is kind of terrifying – though perhaps not all that surprising, given the recent rise of far-right movements around the world. His subscribers can’t even use the separate-the-art-from-the-artist defence – as some have tried with writer Orson Scott Card and filmmaker Mel Gibson – because, in the case of Kjellberg, the art is the artist. What we see in his videos – especially videos of him simply playing a game – is not an act. It’s just Kjellberg being Kjellberg. People who still watch and support him despite his bigotry are implicitly buying into casual racism.
And as long as millions continue to do so, they won’t consider themselves outliers. The strength of numbers will make them confident that the rest of the world is just overreacting, making a big deal out of something that ought not be much of an issue. Put simply, Kjellberg’s legions of loyal fans are actively normalizing his behaviour.
So what’s to be done? Probably not much. YouTube has taken punitive action against Kjellberg in the past, removing him from Google Preferred and axing his original series Scare PewDiePie, but the online video giant is unlikely to go so far as to ban him. As the top channel on the service, removing him would be akin to HBO cancelling Game of Thrones, or ESPN giving up Monday Night Football. It’s just not going to happen.
And, despite his apology, it’s probably too much to ask that Kjellberg actually learns from his mistake this time and makes meaningful amends not just through a change in behaviour but also engaging in activism and awareness campaigns, as any good PR professional would surely recommend to him right about now.
More likely, we’ll simply need to continue to rely on the conscience of social media to keep tabs on him, and hope the message that antics like these are unacceptable slowly sinks in for those who continue to watch and support him. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s where we are.