PewDiePie’s Troubled History With Anti-Semitism

Fostering a community with an appeal to Nazi imagery, as it turns out, is antithetical to the pursuit of acceptance.

PewDiePie has made himself a habit of attracting controversy even when he tries to do good, and that was what happened when a $50K donation to the Anti-Defamation League backfired, as a sizeable chunk of his following voiced disapproval in the comments that PewDiePie (or presumably his team of moderators) had to routinely clean up due to the presence of an unwieldy amount of anti-Semitic remarks — among which is a conspiracy theory that the ADL had blackmailed PewDiePie into committing to this large of a donation — in its wake. This wasn’t the first time Felix Kjellberg had to recant an initiative because of a public backlash, but it is the first where his community was in huge part responsible for it.

Kjellberg’s passif doesn’t do him much favor in curtailing responsibility. The YouTuber currently sitting at above a 100 million subscribers was accredited the advent of the “Adpocalypse” when he paid two men to hold up a sign saying “Death to All Jews”. This took place during what is commonly referred to within PewDiePie’s community as his “Edgy Pewds” era, wherein Kjellberg would routinely border the line of offensiveness by featuring memes and making statements that if not on the surface quite explicitly bigoted, do entail a lot of bigoted undertones.

This persisted well after this phase, though in much more dissimulated and indirect forms. In late 2018, PewDiePie was spotted driving traffic towards an anti-Semitic channel, harkening back to his earlier feather-ruffling antics. Though Kjellberg continued to receive criticism from the media for amplifying these views, his followers saw it as an affront to his self-built fortune–the thinking goes that PewDiePie by virtue of being the last man standing in a symbolic fight between corporations and individuals on YouTube, that mainstream media would automatically have a stake in drumming up the corporate side of the battle.

That said conflict was at its uttermost exemplified when PewDiePie kept trading blows with Indian production house T-Series in what is perhaps the most-publicized event in all of YouTube’s history. Top creators like Jacksepticeye and Markiplier all contributed their bit of support by hosting subscription streams where they’d implore their followers to go “Subscribe to PewDiePie”. The cultural resonance of the slogan proved so powerful, that the Christchurch mosque shooter used it as a verbal shitpost and a dog whistle addressed to their community of fellow bigots on 8chan, prompting PewDiePie soon thereafter to implore his followers to no longer use the meme after its innocent origins were twisted into a symbol of hate.

Of such tenure, the Swastika’s various incarnations would comfortably slot into that category. PewDiePie didn’t mince much about his wardrobe choices, where he’d occasionally slip into SS uniform, or don one of the several flavors of WWII-era Nazi imagery that it becomes downright impossible to sever his affinity for wearing this provocative clothing, away from the statements frequently made in his videos. That was very much what the ADL donation was about–in his infinite wisdom, PewDiePie thought that making a donation to an organization entrusted with the well-being of Jews, would go well with an audience for whom he has fostered a peculiar hatred of Jews that at no point went through a check of sobriety. The common excuse often emanates from an unlikely brand of naivete–as Kjellberg’s community would often like to go through an overwrought use of conjecture to justify why would there be such an emphasis on Nazi imagery in a video that might casually reference anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories. But the problem is that PewDiePie hasn’t exactly earned himself the benefit of the doubt for any neutral observer to make that conclusion. Unlike his colleague Jacksepticeye — who imbues much of his online identity with an emphasis on acceptance and tolerance — Kjellberg has never really made it a point to keep the bigoted impulses of his fringe following at bay. So when the contribution of $50k towards the ADL hit, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a significant portion of his followers would not live it down.

That’s perhaps the greatest tragedy of PewDiePie’s existence online. He could have become an animus for pluralistic values given his unique position in the YouTube world, leveraging his army of followers to force widespread cultural change throughout the platform. But instead, he chose to swim with the current, and even amplify some of YouTube’s vilest existing bigoted tendencies. Midst an environment where the platform begs for reform, it only further highlighted why no one individual should hold that much power–even PewDiePie himself, couldn’t stem the tide of hatred that he himself helped to create.