Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie, is the undisputed lord of Youtube. With over 53 million subscribers (22 million more than his closest competitor) and 14.7 billion video views, PewDiePie’s loud, provocative, and often controversial performances have drawn in a large, predominantly teenaged audience that online marketers have proved desperate to reach.
Chief amongst them were Maker Studios, a digital media acquired by Disney in 2014. PewDiePie quickly became the flagship for the network, receiving promotional benefits while retaining complete independence over his content. PewDiePie also partnered with Youtube Red, the streaming service’s premium content service, under which he created an original show entitled Scare PewDiePie.
Earlier this week, both companies cut ties with the content creator after The Wall Street Journal published an article addressing a video dated January 11th in which PewDiePie paid two Indian teens through service marketplace Fiverr to film themselves holding a sign that read ‘Death to all Jews’.
This morning, Kjellberg posted a response to allegations that he is anti-semitic. In it, he says he accepts Disney and Youtube owner Alphabet Inc’s decision to remove sponsorship from his videos, but was quick to lay blame on traditional media for what he calls a purposeful attack by an institution that sees him as a threat.
And so the cry of “fake news!” goes up from not just PewDiePie’s fanbase, but also independent groups who believe the incident promotes their cause.
Neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer changed their header to read “The world’s #1 PewDiePie fansite,” and thanked him for “making the masses comfortable with our ideas”. Kjellberg released a statement to clarify that he did not support hateful attitudes, but the damage had been done.
Is Kjellberg a nazi or a fascist, as so many media networks have been claiming this week? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t change the fact that his statement claiming “you can joke about anything” is being celebrated by the very people who use the same words written upon the controversial sign to incite hatred and inequality. Nor does his belief that laughing over such matters isn’t a means of normalising hate speech negate the reality that by laughing himself, he is telling his young audience that it is acceptable to joke about killing Jews as long as you don’t actually do it.
Kjellberg’s response doesn’t feel like a wake up call to the content creator – whose subscriber and view counts have risen above monthly averages in the wake of the controversy – but will hopefully serve as one for digital marketers pairing with social influencers solely based on audience numbers.
Marketers need to understand just how little control they have over their relationship with influencers, and assess the risks ahead of time. From Kim Kardashian’s failure to follow FDA guidelines, to Warner Brother breaking the FTC’s code of conduct by attempting to hide the fact that they were paying PewDiePie and his colleagues to play their games, the appeal of unfiltered sponsorship is based on unrealistic visions. It’s what entrepreneurs call Shiny Object Syndrome: an irrational obsession with trends over logic that’s reached fever pitch as new media expands.
If the PewDiePie incident proves anything, it’s that there must be understanding and transparency ahead of time. For what Kjellberg seems to have failed to take into consideration is Disney’s own history with claims of anti-semitism. For years, everyone from Meryl Streep to Family Guy have painted Walt Disney as a Nazi sympathiser. Though there’s little proof of it, pop-culture keeps the myth alive. So while Kjellberg might blame media pressure for ending his relationship with Disney, it’s not difficult to believe that even if the controversy hadn’t flared, Disney would have made efforts to distance themselves from anything that could further tarnish their founder’s reputation.
Had Kjellberg taken this into consideration, there would have been no story. But he didn’t. Now everyone suffers, and the ‘Us vs Them’ mentality grows a little more popular, fuelling the division that PewDiePie thought worthy of a cheap laugh.