On February 13, 2017, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a compilation video which revealed that Disney’s Maker Studios decided to end their partnership with mega-YouTuber, Felix Kjellberg (more widely known as “PewDiePie”), after the WSJ inquired how they felt about the prevalence of Nazi and anti-Semitic themes in his videos. The compilation video contains various clips from Kjellberg’s channel, some of which depicted him saluting Hitler and paying individuals to carry a sign with an anti-Semitic message.
Though Kjellberg protested that WSJ’s video took his jokes out of context and reiterated that his behavior was satirical in nature, this entire debacle has failed to fade into irrelevancy since multiple news outlets and blogs continue to discuss Kjellberg’s situation. While Kjellberg’s fan-base remains solid, his professional career has suffered severely because of the WSJ’s “expose.” In addition to being dropped from the Maker Studios roster, YouTube also canceled the second season of his YouTube Red show, “Scare PewDiePie” as well as removed him from the Google Preferred line-up, a program that provides companies with a list of advertiser-friendly YouTubers to associate with.
The discussion surrounding this situation is puzzling, since Kjellberg has always been known for his subversive and vulgar humor — in fact, it might be these two qualities that have garnered him a following of over 50 million subscribers. It seems that the WSJ piece initiated an unfortunate chain of events that might have never occurred without their involvement.
This entire fiasco is a cautionary tale of sorts. First, although Kjellberg has suffered the brunt of the consequences, it also reflects badly on traditional news media, specifically the WSJ. YouTubers rarely make news headlines and instead are usually covered by niche blogs that are exclusively interested in the YouTube community. Perhaps the WSJ was trying to reach a different audience or to seem in touch with the digital age by taking his name and sensationalizing it. However, their attempt backfired, discrediting them and portraying them as out of touch and greedy for readership. This illustrates a divide between traditional media and new media, like YouTube, and how catastrophic an attempt to bridge such a gap can be without the right perspective and proper direction.
Secondly, it depicts how impactful news organizations, even those with a reputation for misinformation, are at shaping the public’s perception and influencing people’s decisions. This is troubling, especially when not everything that is published is truthful nor accurate. In Kjellberg’s situation, it has adversely affected his career. While he still has supporters within the YouTube community, his reputation has been tainted forever. Although there is a general consensus that the WSJ misrepresented Kjellberg, major companies such as Disney and YouTube are more invested in protecting their image for investors than relationships with their “talents.”
Evidently, it is crucial for news organizations to check their facts thoroughly and to prioritize integrity over virality. News outlets should aim to be as honest as possible, instead of crafting sensationalist and biased articles to acquire readership. This is not just for the reader’s benefit, but also for news outlets as well so that they can establish themselves as reliable sources of information. Journalists have a responsibility to inform the public; it is irresponsible and careless to report anything less than the truth, especially when corporations and powerful institutions tend to value public opinion over the facts, such as in Kjellberg’s case.
Finally, although the aftermath of Kjellberg’s actions are isolated to himself, this situation could set an unwanted precedent in the YouTube sphere. YouTube has always been seen as a more casual source of entertainment, as the content is produced by private individuals and not professionals. Therefore, there has been quite a bit of freedom in publishing videos, as long as it does not violate copyright regulations and other community guidelines. The WSJ’s coverage of Kjellberg, and all subsequent news coverage of the scandal shows the increasing scrutiny influential YouTubers are placed under as they become more popular. YouTubers might become more vigilant in how they behave and withhold their opinions and ideas in order to protect their careers.
This could negatively affect YouTube’s longevity and popularity. If users feel they have to censor themselves to maintain a good relationship with the company, they might lose interest in the medium and go elsewhere where they can express themselves freely. Consequently for YouTube, this could lead to loss of viewership, site traffic and ultimately, ad revenue which is crucial for sustaining the company.
Granted, Kjellberg is not without blame. What people find humorous is subjective, and his jokes were a bit insensitive and tactless considering the recent election of a leader who is also targeting a specific group of individuals. It is not groundless to perceive his jokes as normalizing hate, especially when he is referencing an extremely painful and traumatizing part of history. Although he probably predicted his followers to consider his content as typical “PewDiePie,” he should have also considered it would not be received the same way by people outside of the YouTube community.
News outlets and individuals overall must be more responsible and thoughtful in the content they publish online. Although Kjellberg’s videos and the WSJ’s article were all published virtually, they still had very grave repercussions for the people involved. How this situation has escalated should serve as an example that not everything that seems frivolous usually remains as such.