How much money is a joke worth?
Swedish vlogger Felix Kjellberg, known by his 102 million YouTube subscribers as PewDiePie, announced that he's "taking [a] break from YouTube" in 2020, adding, "I'm tired, I'm feeling very tired." The notice is tacked onto the end of his recent harangue about YouTube's upcoming policy changes, which are meant to crack down on harassment in the form of hate speech, threats, and incitements of violence. Maybe he's fed up with YouTube's history of inconsistent and hypocritical policy changes. Maybe, like much of the public, he's just fed up with himself.
PewDiePie Is "Joking"
YouTube recently announced that they will "no longer allow content that maliciously insults someone based on protected attributes such as their race, gender expression, or sexual orientation." The policy reads, "We've always removed videos that explicitly threaten someone, reveal confidential personal information, or encourage people to harass someone else. Moving forward, our policies will go a step further and not only prohibit explicit threats, but also veiled or implied threats. This includes content simulating violence toward an individual or language suggesting physical violence may occur."
The long-winded language of their update clarifies that they're aware of what kind of dangerous and hateful content has been permitted on their platform, from the physical endangerment associated with viral stunts like the "Bird Box" challenge to extremist beliefs targeting groups and individuals based on race, religion, or sexuality. Kjellberg, for instance, has consistently been one of the highest paid content creators on YouTube, earning approximately $15.5 million in 2018. He's also been described as "controversial" for his history of anti-Semitic jokes, Nazi imagery, and endorsement by far right extremists. In March of this year, the white nationalist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand took to Facebook before murdering at least 50 worshippers to livestream himself saying, "Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie." The YouTuber has been cited in at least one other shooter's manifesto (before said shooter murdered one woman and wounded three more in a California synagogue). In fact, he had no connection to either gunmen, and he tweeted, "I feel absolutely sickened having my name uttered by this person."
However, Kjellberg himself has absolutely promoted violent and extremist beliefs—albeit "ironically," he's argued. The 30-year-old lost partnerships with Disney and Google after he used the N-word during a gaming livestream in 2017. Before that, he starred in his own YouTube reality show Scare PewDiePie, but the company canceled it after Wall Street Journal detailed his use of anti-Semitic jokes and Nazi imagery in at least nine videos. He even apologized for hosting a video of two men holding up a sign reading "Death to all Jews." "I'm sorry for the words that I used," he said. "I know they offended people, and I admit that the joke itself went too far." Also of note is his cancelation of a pledge to donate $50,000 to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League this past September, supposedly in response to the Christchurch shootings.
While PewDiePie has been trying to distance himself from YouTube's political extremism, has he ever been "joking?" How complicit is PewDiePie in the violence of extremist men who agree with some of his "jokes?" When The New York Times tackled that complicated but widely circulated question, Kevin Roose tracked down the YouTuber for his profile, "What Does PewDiePie Really Believe?" in which he wrote, "One crucial thing to understand about YouTube is that there are really two of them." There's an outer, harmless veneer of music videos and comedians, TedTalks and cat videos, but there's also an inner sphere of conspiracy theories and varietal "truthers," bloviating gamers and far Left or Right commentators (PewDiePie combines the latter two).
In effect, these YouTube rabbit holes are like all other echo chambers on social media. In Roose's words, "It is a self-contained universe with its own values and customs... The biggest of these personalities have millions of subscribers and Oprah-level influence over their fandoms. Many Inner YouTubers never watch TV and develop elaborate parasocial bonds with their favorite creators."
Hate Speech in the Age of YouTube
How did we get here? In the 228 years since the Bill of Rights was adopted, there surely hasn't been a day someone didn't dispute their interpretation of Freedom of Speech, whether that be regarding hate speech, freedom of the press, or accusations of totalitarian censorship when someone reported their sexist Tweet. Then, with the introduction of YouTube 14 years ago (along with plenty of other social media echo chambers), what media constitutes "press" and how much authority internet companies have over private individuals' content became unregulated terrain. Simultaneously, culture wars and bipartisan issues have driven antipathy and disdain between opposing political parties to record-high severity, according to Pew Research Center. Now YouTube is experiencing "growing pains" as an Internet company, according to The Verge, and their balm is to say they've "met with a number of experts who shared their perspective and informed our process, from organizations that study online bullying or advocate on behalf of journalists, to free speech proponents and policy organizations from all sides of the political spectrum."
But more insidious than YouTube's lack of tangible action is the way in which irony and nihilism have come to define our digital modes of communication, ultimately feeding into outrage culture, cancel culture, and the capitalist absurdity of brands making dad jokes on Twitter. Is PewDiePie really joking? Does it matter, when his clickbait videos were in the same playlists as right-wing personalities like Alex Jones (who offered him a guest slot on Infowars, which Kjellberg declined)? Roose notes, "Edgelords—people who post offensive things online for attention—had always existed on message boards like 4chan. But YouTube brought them out of the shadows and turned provocation into a viable career path." He adds, "On YouTube, there were few rules and no lawyers looking over creators' shoulders — which is precisely why millions of young people went there, to find the kind of stuff they couldn't get on TV."
Of course, YouTube isn't interested in looking over the shoulders of creators who produce ad revenue. Ostensibly, YouTube's new anti-harassment policy is in service of creating a more diversified, all-inclusive digital space. "Harassment hurts our community by making people less inclined to share their opinions and engage with each other," they write in their policy update. However, bullying is also bad for business—especially if popular creators are driven away from the platform. The problem, of course, is that plenty of extremist, right-wing, and plain "problematic" creators are popular, which means they give YouTube ad revenue. As an Internet company, YouTube's business model prioritizes views over actual quality of content.
Researchers like Becca Lewis of the Data & Society Research Institute has condemned YouTube's algorithm as one that "helps amplify and propagate extremism through social networks." She critiqued, "Extremism on YouTube is interwoven with the platform itself: The engine for radicalism particular to YouTube is its monetization of extreme ideas, allowing both extremists and the company to profit from such dangerous content."
As a company with an estimated net worth between $160 billion and $300 billion, of course they prioritize ad revenue over the ideological decay of their viewers (who are predominantly between 15 and 25 years old). Roose added, "For people who frequent Inner YouTube—generally people under 25, along with some older people with abundant free time—the site is not just a video platform but a prism through which all culture and information is refracted." That's how PewDiePie's brand of "joking" easily turns into irony poisoning that leads viewers to internalize the kind of racist, anti-Semitic, or white nationalist concepts they intend to mock.
But hate makes money, so what's an Internet company to do? Recently, the company's incurred a large backlash (even a YouTube Walkout) after they updated their terms of service to say that channels that make them money are prioritized on the platform. "YouTube may terminate your access, or your Google account's access to all or part of the Service if YouTube believes, in its sole discretion, that provision of the service to you is no longer commercially viable," the policy read, also noting that "Content is the responsibility of the person or entity that provides it to the Service. YouTube is under no obligation to host or serve Content," a statement that emphasizes that they have no responsibility for the ideas promoted on their platform, despite their anti-harassment policy.
This policy's just the latest gesture to appease critics and shirk culpability for hate-based content, and YouTube's made similar promises to crack down before. As Gizmodo pointed out in July, one month after YouTube announced its site-wide overhaul of its policies against hate speech, "It remain[ed] disturbingly easy to find channels associated with hate groups on the platform. Strangely, this isn't a simple oversight by YouTube's parent company, Google. In fact, it's the policy working as planned." To be fair, with more than 23 million channels, it's an enormous feat to monitor each one for possibly dangerous content (without incurring accusations of censorship and Orwellian Big Brother fascism). However, Gizmodo breaks down the platform's history of cracking down on right-wing or extremist channels, and "these numbers suggest YouTube is aware of many of the hate speech issues concerning the remaining 187 channels—and has allowed them to stay active."
Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which is dedicated to tracking extremist content, said that "Because YouTube only deals with the content posted, it allows serious white supremacists like Richard Spencer and [KKK leader] David Duke to keep content up." She added, "In general, our feeling is that YouTube has got to get serious about removing radicalizing materials given the impact these videos can have on young, white men." But researchers like Lewis don't just blame YouTube. "To be clear, YouTube's glut of white-supremacist content isn't simply a glitch in the platform's content-delivery system," she writes. "It's the product of a social problem badly exacerbated by technology and which extremists have exploited to amplify their messages as widely as possible."
Despite spending hours interviewing Kjellberg and creators who've collaborated with him over the years, Roose can't come to a conclusion about what PewDiePie actually believes or means to say. PewDiePie probably isn't a white nationalist, and he may not be an anti-Semite. He's the run-off product of our time, a 30-year-old joker who monetizes himself and his beliefs to create an optimized brand rather than a viable belief system.
In his recent video criticizing YouTube's anti-harassment policy, Kjellberg sits in his colorful gaming chair with his mouth inches from his microphone's pop filter. He reads aloud excerpts of the policy and argues back, "The only thing keeping other YouTubers in check is other YouTubers. We have this anarchy system; don't come and ruin it for us, YouTube. The rule is if you do dumb sh*t on YouTube, you will get called out on it. We need that—it's the only thing keeping us sane." But by definition, anarchy is a state of disorder that can never be regulated in a system. The caption of PewDiePie's video is characteristic of the typical commentary and probity of all YouTube edgelords who earn millions by passing off hate speech as "jokes": "Youtube stinky."
Days after, Kjellberg quit Twitter, citing Aristotle and condemning virtue signaling, writing, "You get rewarded for saying things that make you virtuous, rather than acting on it…this is why (Twitter) has become a cesspool. More often than not the people who boast about being virtuous are hiding the fact they're not," he added, virtuously.