Last week, Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article and accompanying video accusing 27-year-old Swedish YouTube Influencer Felix Kjellberg, better known by his moniker PewDiePie, of publishing “anti-semitic posts”. In a media ecology saturated with Influencers, wannabes, and old/traditional/legacy media attempting to shift into digital spaces, this news is significant as PewDiePie is among the most watched, renown, and viable icons in the digital Influencer industry, being the most subscribed and highest paid YouTuber in 2016. In the wake of these accusations, PewDiePie’s network Maker Studios (recently bought over by Disney) and his platform partner YouTube Red dropped him from their stable, terminated his upcoming series, and removed him from their advertising programme.
I am an anthropologist who wrote my PhD on the Influencer industry, having observed the scene as early as in 2007 and investigated it professionally since 2010. I published extensive case studies and academic research on the culture of Influencers, including the shifts in trends and practices over the years. In this post, I extrapolate from the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal alongside reactions from prominent YouTubers to discuss Influencers on YouTube, their cultural vernacular and community norms, their relationship with legacy media, and their potential as new weaponized microcelebrity.
1) Influencers are expanding in reach and impact across various industries
Since they first debut in the early-2000s, Influencers have progressed from hobbyist home-based webcamming and desktop publishing to extremely lucrative full-time careers. So viable and attractive is their craft that the industry has grown rapidly, approaching saturation as wannabes attempt to mimic the footsteps of successful role models while businesses clamour to tap into the following of notable icons.
Naturally, a string of news articles have been speculating that Influencers are being paid too much for their craft (Adweek, Digiday, PRcouture). Conveniently, many of these articles and op-eds are being published by advertising and PR firms who are the very actors being eliminated from middle-manning for clients, as Influencers can be approached directly for collaborations or via dedicated Influencer talent agencies. Influencers have impacted the advertising industry so significantly that new tax laws have been established around the world (e.g. Norway, Singapore), and industry guidelines on disclosures and disclaimers are being updated.
Payscales aside, Influencers are beginning to cross-over into other industries, establishing themselves as bonafide ambassadors, content creators, opinion leaders, and participants in various economies. In television, fashion bloggers have been given their own reality TV series and YouTube opinionators have been invited to manage the social media of major talk shows. In cinema, Influencers are being recruited to guest star in or headline their own movies. In music, Influencers are producing albums, being contracted to major labels, and winning awards. In publishing, Influencers are authoring memoirs and fiction, and photo books. In fashion, Influencers are spearheading creative campaigns for luxury labels and producing their own lines. Influencers are also using their platforms to promote social causes pertaining to politics and LGBT advocacy.
2) Despite being as prolific, Influencers do not have the same privileges and concessions ascribed to those in the more traditional media/celebrity economies
Influencers now constitute an alternative estate of the media. They are separate from
a) old/traditional/legacy media attempting to establish their presence on the internet;
Influencers are growing in their reach and impact, but their primary audience is still a specific demographic of young, technology-literate internet users who are likely middle-class and English-speaking. Their exposure to a larger demographic is contingent upon the extent to which they have successfully crossed-over and established themselves other industries, or brief instances of virality that are instigated or amplified by the mainstream press. This is unlike the websites and digital estates of legacy media that are able to draw on the long-standing familiarity and reputation of their brand to speak to “digital immigrants“. In this way, one headline from the online version of an established newspaper is likely to gain more traction and cause bigger ripple effects across a diverse readership than a series of social media posts from Influencers. Bad press from (online versions of) traditional media is more difficult to redress than Influencer faux pas.
b) aggregate online sites;
Influencers primarily draw in followers by performing and selling a persona. While many Influencers produce excellent content, they usually foster a loyal viewership through their charisma and (screen) personality, constructing and maintaining communicative intimacies with their followers. Influencers are essentially vehicles for messages, a la walking billboards. Whether these messages are disseminated through actual talent, entertainment value, or spectacular scandal such as sexbait, the crux is that Influencers use their persona to become key opinion leaders, nodes around which other networks of opinions and influencers cluster. This means that Influencers have to curate highly congruent personae across the lifetime of their careers, their various digital estates, and even when they present themselves in public in the flesh. This is unlike aggregate online sites who are content-oriented and draw in viewers per click or per article. They aim to maximise visibility and clickthroughs for individual URLs rather than focus on their overall branding. As a result, their articles are often contradictory and they are less accountable for the coherence of their stance and viewpoints, surrendering to the economies of trends and clickbaitism.
c) mainstream celebrities curating persona on social media;
Influencers are everyday-internet-users-turned-microcelebrities whose allure is premised on being relatable and accessible. The bulk of their content is self-managed and based on sharing the usually personal and private aspects of their lives. They literally commodify their personal privacy for a watchful audience. This is unlike mainstream celebrities who have access to backend managerial and PR mechanisms that are equipped to manage bad press and protect their privacy. Simply put, despite being (almost) as prolific as mainstream celebrities, Influencers do not have the same systemic safeguards and support. They have to independently manage their precarity and pitfalls either through trial-and-error or by modelling after predecessors. When an unprecedented situation or scandal breaks out, Influencers have to play by ear while (re-)establishing out-of-bound markers and (re-)negotiating community standards.
3) Influencers and followers maintain highly contextual community norms and cultural vernacular
After the WSJ’s accusations of anti-semitism, the subsequent amplification of the story by legacy media, and the corporate backlash from his partners, PewDiePie removed the offensive video and took to YouTube to address the public in a response video. The Influencer’s key points were:
1) the media has thus far only focused on his earnings and wealth, ignoring other aspects such as his charity work;
2) old school media fear the influence of YouTubers, they participate in clickbait, the reputable WSJ is slipping to tabloid standards, and they are attempting to discredit him and undermine his economic value;
3) WSJ took his jokes out of context and misrepresented his jokes as intentional hate posts (he subsequently explained the lifted jokes in the context of the original videos);
4) he cannot control the fact that hate groups are supporting him, and denounced them in a public statement;
5) he apologized for taking his joke too far, says he is learning from the lesson, and acknowledged that there are consequences for his actions;
6) he thanked fellow YouTubers for coming out in support of him.
However, legacy media retaliated with headlines such as “PewDiePie Says WSJ Took Anti-Semitic Content Out of Context“, “PewDiePie angrily accuses media of ‘out-of-context’ reports on antisemitic video“, and “PewDiePie’s Misguided War On The Media Sounds Familiar“.
Alongside PewDiePie’s response, I sample a group of eight videos from a network of YouTubers who commentated on the scandal. I collected these videos through snowball sampling, beginning with PewDiePie’s original response video and the linked recommended videos offered by YouTube’s algorithms at the end of each video. I watched the videos in full on 21 February 2017 and transcribed some key points that I quote later.
The videos sampled are:
Original: “My Response” (11:05) by PewDiePie
1) “RESPECT” (7:24) by Markiplier
2) “Pewdiepie Racist Anti Semitic Claims – My Response” (7:41) by CinnamonToastKen
3) “Is PewDiePie a Racist?” (8:15) by h3h3Productions
4) “Defending PewDiePie From JK Rowling, Even Though I Hate Him And Used To Like Her” (17:47) by The Amazing Atheist
5) “PewDiePie – A Character Assassination” (19:12) by Armoured Skeptic
6) “MSM Tried TO Destroy PewDiePie and OMG It Just Backfired! So ridiculous…” (9:21) by Philip DeFranco
7) “PEWDIEPIE IS A RACIST?!” (7:16) by JaclynGlenn
8) “Response to PewDiePie” (10:19) by Pyrocynical
Each of these videos present cross-referential and cultural translation work volunteered by the YouTubers. They juxtapose the short snippets of PewDiePie’s videos that have been quoted by WSJ and other legacy media against the original videos. Collectively, these YouTubers seem to be speaking not to their fellow YouTubers and regular followers, but to passersby, curious strangers, and outsiders of the YouTuber community who require an orientation and foregrounding of the PewDiePie scandal. They demonstrate to (new) viewers how to situate the now-viral snippets in the entirety of their original videos, with context, as informed by the community norms of humour among YouTubers.
Of the many illustrations, three were most prolific:
1) WSJ circulated a still of PewDiePie supposedly making the Nazi salute, when this was actually just him extending his arm and pointing off-screen; WSJ had conveniently renarrativized this gesture since PewDiePie’s hand and pointed fingers were not visible in the still and could be de- and re-contextualized.
2) WSJ lifted a clip of PewDiePie donning a uniform and watching Hitler videos, when this was actually the second half of a longer snippet in which PewDiePie first refuted earlier media accusations that he was a Nazi-supporter, and then jokingly don a British uniform while pretending to watch clips of Hitler’s speech to depict how he thinks the media views him.
3) WSJ reported that PewDiePie called for “Death to all jews”. Attempting to test limits of absurdity and what people would do for money on the freelance marketplace website Fiverr, PewDiePie hired two men to hold up banners with the offensive phrase, thinking that they wouldn’t do it. They eventually did, he expressed shock, and apologized for the prank in the video recounting this whole exchange. Although the YouTubers have been reminding viewers that this was merely a joke and not PewDiePie’s outright call to arms, this seems to be the least defensible of the accusations given that actual White supremacists have been capitalising on PewDiePie’s dark jokes to further their message in the wake of Trumpmerica, and that the racist jokes potentially caused distress to viewers.
These YouTubers were mostly outraged over WSJ’s intentional negation of the cultural context and vernacular implicit in these videos. Jewish YouTuber h3h3Productions notes: “Context matters… As a Jewish person I’m not offended, and this is the problem with this manufactured outrage: People getting offended for people who are not offended. You don’t need to get outraged on my behalf ok”. YouTuber JaclynGlenn who has experienced similar de/re-contextualizing on a smaller scale notes: “Purposefully mischaracterizing someone in this kind of way just to generate more attention for yourself is pretty disgusting, and that’s exactly what they’re doing here… It’s a form of censorship and I really hate that”.
With this contextual topography, the YouTubers argue that claims of PewDiePie’s anti-semitism are highly exaggerated and decontextualized from what were simply narrative devices of ironic juxtaposition, self-deprecating humour, and pranks that went out of line.
4) YouTubers are perceiving the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal as a struggle between Influencers and legacy media more generally
The general sentiment from these YouTubers is unanimously that legacy media is attacking YouTubers and Influencers, targeting PewDiePie as an exemplar. h3h3Productions calls this incident “a huge smear campaign… that is the biggest consequence of this… a global case of defamation”. CinnamonToastKen reminds viewers that PewDiePie’s cancelled series affects the livelihoods of several others who worked on it, and that these repercussions have not been discussed by the media: “No one cares about all the other people who were working on this project… we got the big guy, good job everyone, we got him, pat yourselves on the back”. However, a recent news article reports that these folks “will almost certainly be paid out in full“.
The YouTubers feel that legacy media is capitalizing on the digitally-native popularity of PewDiePie to reel in clicks on their articles. Philip DeFranco reports: “Felix brings in the clicks. Outrage brings in the clicks. Get them in with a headline and whatever happens after happens… their intent was to take down and ruin Felix… We just need a good juicy headlines and we’ll make some points that, it’ll get across to 98% of the people that aren’t going to fact check or dive deeper on it”. The Amazing Atheist concurs: “It’s old media attacking new media. It’s the lumbering dinosaur of irrelevance lashing out against the next phase of evolution. PewDiePie is basically their worst fucking nightmare. He’s one guy with no masters holding his leash, who is basically accountable only to himself. And he’s making boatloads of money by giving people content created solely by his own passion”.
The YouTubers feel that WSJ’s intention and incentive is primarily monetary rather than social justice. Pyrocynical reports: “The article is titled ‘Disney Severs Ties With YouTube Star PewDiePie After Anti-Semitic Posts’… ‘To read the full story, Subscribe or Sign-In… The world reacts. We analyze. One pound for two months’… Let’s make an insanely click-bait, possibly misleading article, and not even let people read the full story without paying, or giving us their email, so we can spam them with shitty newsletters”.
Some YouTubers acknowledge that their responses are in part constitutive of the self-referential, discursive networked, clickbaity culture of YouTube, in which the genre of “response” videos takes advantage of trending topics to gather views. Pyrocynical reflexively laments: “Everyone is looking at PewDiePie under a magnifying glass, because when you see YouTube, you see PewDiePie. He’s the biggest channel, so if someone can put ‘PewDiePie’ in a title, much like I have, then it’s easy views. And this carries from YouTube videos, as well to public journalism”.
Yet, the YouTubers also feel the genuine need to speak back against the over-saturation of legacy media coverage that is drowning out their voices. Armoured Skeptic argues: “When these kinds of social issues come up in the mainstream media, the media themselves beat their narrative into the ground. And honestly the only way to combat this is if we, the alternative media, beat our point into the ground. We’re essentially fighting a dog pile with a dog pile”.
YouTubers with more foresight are also perceiving the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal as an attack against their industry, as a chilling effect to reign other Influencers in and reassert legacy media’s presence in digital spaces. JaclynGlenn contends: “What does this say about the future of YouTube or the future of social media in general?… Could this type of mentality ruin people’s careers?… only big companies and corporations are allowed to get away with this kind of thing”.
Still other YouTubers experienced this scandal personally, framing the media coverage as a personal attack that was unbecoming of basic humanity. In a highly emotive speech, Markiplier alludes to PewDiePie’s struggle and calls for viewers to return to basic human decency and respect: “We as YouTubers are the exact same as you. We’re humans. We’re people wandering this world trying to figure out who we are, just the same as you… We are all equal and deserve to be treated with respect. We’re more than our labels. I don’t give a fuck what the colour of your skin is. I don’t care what religion you believe in. I don’t care where you’ve come from or where you are now. All I care about is who you are, and whether or not you’re free to be able to discover that”.
In the larger scheme of media spectacles, PewDiePie has now been ascribed spectacle value and the social currency to mobilise camps of supporters and haters beyond the domains of the Influencer ecology. Outside of the Influencer community, his microcelebrity has been weaponized and borrowed upon to incite outrage for various causes, alongside other iconic media figures such as Trump, Milo, Assange, and Snowden.
Yet simultaneously within the Influencer community, millions of young followers for whom social media such as YouTube were primarily for entertainment value are now being seduced into joining camps and participating in global discursive debates in defence of/in opposition to Influencers. They are provoked to participate in a display of community loyalty, amateur activism, or politicised awakenings, as evidenced in the comments section of each of these videos and the discursive networks that continue across platforms on various social media.
As Influencers such as PewDiePie become iconised as enemies/heroes of the (alternative) media, they also become placeholders against whom people can align themselves to larger moral values and political allegiances. Even though YouTube Influencers have largely been framing the scandal as an attack by legacy media who are vying for a share of the attention economy in digital spaces, by islands of politicised spectators PewDiePie has been valorised as a symbol of the struggle for free speech, as a proponent against fake news, and another chess piece in the spillover effects of vulnerable global media ecologies in Trumpmerica. Perhaps this proclaims the irrefutable value and impact of the Influencer industry today – everyone wants a claim in it.
What do you feel about the PewDiePie-WSJ scandal? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Beep below.
Dr Crystal Abidin is an anthropologist and ethnographer who studies young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Reach her at wishcrys.com and @wishcrys.
This post was first published on wishcrys.com on 22 February 2017.