YouTuber PewDiePie’s ADL Boycott Shows How Anti-Semitism Goes Mainstream
YouTube’s biggest star is also one of its most controversial. Last month, PewDiePie, given name Felix Kjellberg, reached 100 million subscribers on his channel, where he plays video games for his viewers with a running commentary. He’s got the biggest viewership in the world after the Indian production company T-Series.
But Kjellberg has also been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, which in 2017 led Disney to sever their relationship with him.
On Tuesday, September 10, in an apparent attempt to clear his reputation, Kjellberg announced that he would be donating $50,000 to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization that fights hate. The announcement was part of a video in which he unboxed his trophy from YouTube for reaching 100 million subscribers.
But his plan to donate to the ADL was short lived. At the beginning of a new video posted to YouTube on Thursday, September 12—titled “My 100 Mil Award BROKE!” after the demise of the trophy—the YouTube star announced he would be rescinding his pledge.
Some were shocked. But they shouldn’t have been. Kjellberg’s entanglement with the far right is perhaps the quintessential modern-day example of a phenomenon known as audience capture.
Audience capture is the process by which a performer, dependent upon the appreciation of their fans for continued success, continuously evolves to become more and more like their audience. Finally, instead of nudging their fans toward their own authentic beliefs and values, the captured personality merely mirrors the mini-zeitgeist developing in their mentions.
What you end up with is a toxic feedback loop in which anti-Semitic extremists are influencing social media influencers, with nothing more than the power of their attention.
Take, for example, Kjellberg’s scattershot, contradictory justification for dumping the ADL. The donation, he explained, wearing what some took to be an Iron Cross, was meant “to celebrate” a “collaboration” with a brand, and also “an opportunity to put an end to the alt-right claims” against him — though he also insists somewhat puzzlingly that it wasn’t to try and clear his name or “save grace.” Kjellberg insists that he did not take the “opportunity” very seriously, and named the ADL because he was “advised” to do so, presumably by someone involved with the corporate partnership.
But then he switches tone, brightening significantly. “People could tell something was off,” he says, loosening up and smiling. “Look at his face,” he paraphrased his viewers. “Full conspiracy mode.”
Nothing to see here, just a person is **definitely not an anti-Semite** joking that his fans could see the discomfort in his face when he announced that he chose @ADL for a donation. In case anyone still had doubts about who @pewdiepie exists for. Spoiler: It’s anti-Semites! pic.twitter.com/OJ5B5kba46
— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) September 12, 2019
Kjellberg is reflecting and amplifying his worst fans’ fantasy that some dark, grandiose blackmail conspiracy made him give money to the Jewish organization, as if deciding to boycott them on his own wasn’t anti-Semitic enough.
It’s a perfect example of audience capture, with PewDiePie repeating back to his viewers his impression of their view — literally.
As is its wont, social media amplifies audience capture. In the famously toxic landscape of YouTube comments, only the noisiest and most extreme voices are heard. And Twitter offers the owners of those voices the perfect geometry for launching coordinated campaigns of disapproval and outrage. In other words, social media is a phonocracy: government by the loud.
Now, it’s true that the vast majority of PewDiePie fans are not anti-Semites. Most of them are regular people with regular good and bad qualities (When this is published and I’m inevitably inundated with hate tweets or worse, I will do my level best not to forget this).
But the vast majority of PewDiePie fans are also irrelevant to the process of audience capture. They lack the threshold energy to perturb the roiling boil. Neither YouTube nor Twitter is designed to reward the average viewer; they are designed to reward the vile, the vulgar, and the anti-Semitic who unify around a singular message to inundate.
Thus, fans of YouTube stars like Kjellberg are represented by an unofficial council of trolls and true believers who orchestrate and organize reactions on a scale large enough to appear, as Kjellberg tellingly puts it in his video, as if “the whole Internet” is speaking in one unified voice.
If you think your loudest, most extreme fans represent the whole Internet, and your livelihood depends upon pleasing the whole Internet, you’re going to make decisions that appease your loudest, most extreme fans; hence audience capture. In the artificial confines of YouTube and Twitter where hate echoes the most, it’s no wonder Kjellberg finds himself so often embroiled in controversy involving the radical right.
But it gets worse: Audience capture radicalizes the performer, a radicalization that then attracts more radical personalities to the audience than before, which then operates to further radicalize the performer, and so on. And people like YouTube stars, who have often never known success, much less fame, detached from mass online approval, are quite possibly the last people we should expect to resist the pull.
In his Thursday video, before switching over to playing Minecraft while screaming, Kjellberg’s final words about the ADL are interspersed with sharp jump cuts. “It really doesn’t feel genuine for me to proceed with a donation at this” [jump cut] “point” [jump cut] “and I instead wanted to actually do take my time” [jump cut] “keep the intent that I had, but just doing it with the right charity and doing it properly.”
The jump cuts are meant to signify low-tech authenticity, or something. But they reinforce the idea that the entire process surrounding the donation is artificial and phoned-in.
Kjellberg talks of feeling a “responsibility” in the wake of the Christchurch murders, during which the live-streaming shooter, shortly before opening fire in the first of two mosques and killing 51, told his audience to “subscribe to PewDiePie.” After that, Kjellberg felt his association with the alt-right had become “no longer just about me; it affected other people, in a way.”
One could say that. One could also say that a years-long flirtation between the alt-right and the world’s most popular YouTuber has affected many, many “other people” from the start.
Matt Jameson is a lawyer and columnist for Arc Digital. You can follow him on Twitter @RogueNotary.