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YouTube’s most popular user amplified anti-Semitic rhetoric. Again.

PewDiePie has 76 million followers — and a history of flirting with alt-right culture. The potential consequences are grave.

PewDiePie Signs Copies Of His New Book ‘This Book Loves You’ Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

YouTube’s most popular user is once again facing backlash — this time for promoting a highly anti-Semitic channel by recommending a video featuring a racial slur and a white supremacist conspiracy.

With 76 million subscribers, gaming vlogger PewDiePie, a.k.a. Felix Kjellberg, is the most popular individual on YouTube. In a since-edited video posted on December 9, he recommended several YouTube channels he said he’d been enjoying recently. One of those channels is called “E;R,” and PewDiePie lauded its “great video essays,” including “one on [the Netflix movie] Death Note which I really enjoyed.” He also linked to the channel in his video description. (The recommendation has since been edited out of the video.)

To casual observers, PewDiePie’s support of E;R may have appeared harmless — one YouTube user supporting another. But a more-than-cursory dive into the channel would have revealed several instances of disturbing imagery, slurs, and white supremacist messaging. E;R’s creator even refers to his reputation as a racist in the channel’s FAQ.

The outcry against PewDiePie’s recommendation of the channel was immediate, with media outlets and other YouTube users citing it as an example of PewDiePie flirting with alt-right culture and sending a dangerous message to his millions of followers, many of whom are teenagers.

In response, PewDiePie released a follow-up video on December 11 in which he described the incident as an “oopsie” and scoffed at the idea that he was promoting anti-Semitism by merely “recommending someone for their anime review.”

“All I said was I like this guy’s anime review,” PewDiePie says in the video. “[The channel creator] apparently likes to have hidden and not-so-hidden Nazi references in his videos and obviously if I noticed that I wouldn’t have referenced him in the shoutout.”

PewDiePie also referred to several past incidents that sparked a similar outcry: a video in which he performed a Nazi “heil” salute, and one in which he hired a pair of performers from a freelancer website to hold up a sign reading “Death to all Jews.” He said these examples were satirical, but many observers condemned them as anti-Semitic.

“I said publicly a year and a half ago that I was going to distance myself from Nazi jokes and that kind of stuff, because I want nothing to do with it,” PewDiePie explained. Generally, I’ve done that. I don’t really have a reason to dip into that again — it’s just stupid.”

But each of the three videos that PewDiePie featured in his since-removed shoutout of the E;R channel featured fairly obvious examples of the channel’s offensive content — in fact, not only did part one of the Death Note review that PewDiePie said he liked directly invoke a racial slur in its video description (the description has since been edited), but the first 15 seconds of part two contain a reference to a 2017 incident in which PewDiePie himself dropped a racial slur, strategically edited but unmissable if you’re familiar with the clip in question — which most of PewDiePie’s followers would reasonably be.

Should PewDiePie have known better? His critics say yes; though he has been dismissive about the uproar, this is not the first time he has appeared to flirt with alt-right beliefs, and he’s previously faced backlash for this type of incident many times.

But PewDiePie and his supporters say his critics are overreacting to a harmless mistake.

Regardless of PewDiePie’s intent, any anti-Semitic commentary — no matter how “joking” — could have a dangerous effect. PewDiePie’s 76 million followers tend to skew young, with the majority of his subscribers younger than 24 and 11 percent of them younger than 17. And they are not passive fans; rather, they known for their aggressive loyalty to PewDiePie, to the point that they’ve created a YouTube-wide “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme that has pushed his follower count to nearly 80 million.

So what happens if these young, aggressively loyal, highly mobilized PewDiePie fans begin consuming extremist strains of YouTube content because they were exposed to it, either directly or indirectly, through his channel?

As ethnographer Crystal Abidin has written, “millions” of young YouTube users have previously been “seduced into joining camps and participating in global discursive debates in defence of/in opposition to Influencers.”

So the idea that PewDiePie is amplifying anti-Semitic and other extremist content to millions of impressionable young viewers is alarming.

The channel that PewDiePie linked to is a hotbed of anti-Semitism, racism, and alt-right rhetoric disguised as pop culture commentary

The E;R YouTube channel has a long history of anti-Semitic imagery and messaging. The channel’s anonymous creator, who uses the E;R handle on several online platforms, also habitually links to his accounts on social media sites known to attract members of the alt-right — including Gab, which, as Jane Coaston previously wrote for Vox, “is a focal site for neo-Nazis and others who want to espouse right-wing forms of anti-Semitism.”

The Death Note review that PewDiePie cited uses a racial slur to refer to one of the characters in the movie. The video also contains a reference to a false white nationalist conspiracy theory that Heather Heyer, the protester who was murdered at the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 — and whose killer was recently convicted and sentenced to life in prison — actually died of a heart attack.

This indirect, dog-whistle form of alt-right messaging is common for the channel, which deliberately uses pop culture imagery, mainly drawn from animated series like Death Note and in particular the Cartoon Network TV series Steven Universe, as a tool for spreading white supremacist propaganda. Some of the many examples littering the channel’s videos include frequent references to media creators and other public figures using the historically loaded slur “Jews,” and references to anti-Semitic conspiracy phraseology such as “the Jewish question,” a frequent alt-right dog whistle that refers to the “Endlösung der Judenfrage” — German for “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and the official Nazi code language for planning and carrying out the Holocaust.

The channel also refers to black characters from pop culture as “Negroes,” and contains mentions of being “redpilled,” blatantly racist imagery and stereotypes, homophobic slurs, mocking references to feminism and the idea of rape culture, sexist slurs, and sexist portrayals of women.

In the thumbnail for one video, the channel’s creator distorts a black actor’s face to exaggerate their features in a blatantly racist fashion. In another video, E;R turns a clip in which Barack Obama repeats the phrase “choose hope” into a deeply anti-Semitic slur referencing a notoriously horrific fact about the Holocaust.

And throughout many videos focused on Steven Universe, E;R presents the show’s characters as analogues for Jewish people, coding them with anti-Semitic stereotypes. In one such video, he portrays one character as a deceptive tool for a global Jewish conspiracy, as indicated by a montage of public figures and businessmen, and then ends the video with an altered version of a white supremacist slogan known as the “14 words.”

In other words, there is serious anti-Semitic and white supremacist propaganda underlying the “great video essays” that PewDiePie endorsed.

Since PewDiePie’s December 9 video drew greater attention to the E;R channel, YouTube has reportedly suspended one of the creator’s videos and issued a strike against the account for violating the site’s community guidelines. The suspended video, which according to E;R had 2 million views at the time of its removal from YouTube, was ostensibly about Steven Universe — but it also contained four minutes of unedited footage of Hitler delivering a speech. YouTube did not respond to a request from Vox for comment.

This is not the first time that PewDiePie has used his considerable influence to peddle alt-right messaging

To many YouTube users, the content of the E;R channel itself isn’t as concerning as the fact that PewDiePie — who, again, is YouTube’s most popular individual user — has endorsed it, and that PewDiePie has what is by now a well-established larger pattern of giving a platform to alt-right ideas and personalities.

That’s alarming for multiple reasons — starting with the fact that the alt-right has been rapidly gaining ground on YouTube. The movement encompasses multiple overlapping internet subcultures, but is built atop a foundation of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and anti-feminist ideology. It is characterized by highly sophisticated messaging and recruitment tactics, frequent harassment campaigns, and an emphasis on irony, plausible deniability, and memetic behavior — all of which have grown out of broader online culture, and which now work as a seductive veneer for its ideology across grassroots internet communities on sites like YouTube, 4chan, Reddit, and other communities.

As Zack Beauchamp has previously written for Vox, “There’s a tremendous library of far-right content on [YouTube], as one might expect on a largely unregulated video uploading service, and ... the videos appear to be effective at radicalizing people. A not-insignificant number of people exposed to these videos ... finds them persuasive — and end up joining the alt-right or other far-right movements as a result.”

Which brings us back to PewDiePie shouting out a channel full of anti-Semitic rhetoric to his 76 million followers.

In the days since PewDiePie first linked to E;R, the channel has gained 35,000 new followers, while many critics of PewDiePie, on both YouTube and other social media platforms, have spoken out against him.

“The largest fucking YouTuber on the planet made a video that got 7 million views in 7 hours,” Hasan Piker, a commentator for the left-wing web series The Young Turks, said on his own YouTube channel. “That seems like a fucking big problem, especially if the majority of his viewers are 14-year-old kids who are going to go over to this fucking channel and start watching this guy’s cartoon videos. ... [E;R] has an interest in red-pilling people and turning them over to Naziism or to Fascist ideology. How do you think this will play out when PewDiePie hypes this guy’s fucking channel?”

“[P]ewdiepie is, once again, doing exactly what neo-nazis want,” Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson commented on Twitter in response to the incident. “[W]hether he’s just memeing or he ascribes to these values, it doesn’t matter. [W]hat matters is that he normalizes these ideas as jokes on THE platform where kids increasingly get their first exposure to the world at large.”

As Grayson notes, PewDiePie’s endorsement of the E;R channel continues a long trend of the vlogger using his influence in a way that helps to normalize white supremacist alt-right rhetoric to an alarming — and, on YouTube, increasingly widespread — degree. He does this by casually incorporating it into his videos under the guise of shock humor, then shrugging off any offense as an “oopsie” when outcry ensues. In 2016 and 2017, for example, PewDiePie faced intense backlash for multiple instances in which he promoted Nazi symbolism and anti-Semitism, including a video where he used a racist slur during a gaming live stream.

But despite having faced consequences for this behavior in the past, including losing a lucrative Disney sponsorship, PewDiePie has still been able to secure new marketing partnerships and grow his following.

Meanwhile, his followers have consistently shown support and love for PewDiePie and disdain for media outlets that have reported on his controversies.

“If your frame of reference is YouTube,” Max Read recently wrote in the Intelligencer, one might view an attack on PewDiePie as “an attack on your close friend.”

And though the furor around PewDiePie’s repeated antics subsided after each new incident, his flirting with alt-right ideas has continued. Though he has never openly identified himself as a member or supporter of the alt-right, he has liked and promote channels run by users with ties to the many overlapping internet movements, communities, and subcultures that loosely define the alt-right.

Earlier this year, he made a video in which he reviewed a controversial self-help book by Jordan Peterson — a right-wing personality who is beloved by many in the alt-right. In the review, PewDiePie endorsed the book, called it a “fun” read, and said he would take some of its advice.

Additionally, in response to PewDiePie’s recommendation of the E;R channel, its owner described PewDiePie as producing “redpilled content.” (In far-right discourse, “taking the red pill” or having been “redpilled” implies that someone has “woken up” to the alt-right worldview, which includes the belief that feminism is ruining everything and frequently involves white supremacist dog whistling.)

And it’s easy to see why. Before declaring in 2017 that he would stop making Nazi jokes, PewDiePie made a whole lot of Nazi jokes. Even since then, he’s produced several “satirical” videos and commentary that his alt-right followers have praised as examples of his “dropping redpills” on the rest of his fans.

While PewDiePie only follows a few hundred people on Twitter, many of them have ties to the aforementioned internet movements, communities, and subcultures that loosely define the alt-right, which include Gamergate, Mens’ Rights activism, Pick-Up Artist communities, incels, Reddit’s r/The_Donald community, some atheists and skeptics subcultures, and other online communities that foster white supremacy and radical right-wing extremism.

These include Peterson, the prominent Gamergate writer Ian Miles Cheong, Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson, YouTube philosopher Stefan Molyneux, the Canadian blogger Lauren Southern, YouTube sex education vlogger Laci Green (who made headlines last year after posting a controversial video in which she stated that she “took the red pill a long time ago,” in reference to a new wish to begin publicly debating members of the alt-right), and leading figures of YouTube’s reactionary right-wing community, like Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro. PewDiePie also followed notorious alt-right YouTuber Sargon of Akkad until the latter’s suspension from Twitter last year. (PewDiePie has not responded to a request from Vox for comment.)

It might not seem particularly meaningful that PewDiePie follows this specific group of people on Twitter. But in fact, a recent report from the nonprofit research group Data & Society identified seven of the figures above (Peterson, Rubin, Shapiro, Sargon, Molyneux, Southern, and Watson) as part of an “alternative influencer” network that has developed within YouTube — one that allows far-right extremists to spread their message through frequent social interaction with more mainstream YouTube users.

“Social networking between influencers makes it easy for audience members to be incrementally exposed to, and come to trust, ever more extremist political positions,” the report’s author, Rebecca Lewis, wrote.

To his defiant followers, PewDiePie has come to represent a larger culture clash over YouTube itself. That makes his alt-right flirtation even more pernicious.

PewDiePie’s massive popularity has given him considerable influence over the future of YouTube. In fact, his channel currently sits directly at the center of what seems to be a growing divide between two very different directions for an increasingly polarized platform.

On one side lies many overlapping subcultures that make up huge swaths of the YouTube population: its tremendous gaming communities, including Let’s Play-ers, live streamers, machinima-style editors, and vloggers; its prank cultures and their overlap with stunt personalities like Jake and Logan Paul; and its increasingly insidious alt-right presence.

On the other side lie many, many YouTube users who visit the site for other reasons and other forms of entertainment, and who arguably aren’t interested in supporting the cult of personalities that might be said to represent “old-school” YouTube. Instead, they come to the site for music, memes, narrative media, instructional videos, and more general forms of content consumption and entertainment.

These two ends of a vast YouTube spectrum have clashed recently over two interesting and arguably related phenomena — both of which directly involve PewDiePie. The first is an ongoing battle that PewDiePie’s supporters have been waging in order to prevent his channel from being surpassed as the most popular one on YouTube. To keep this from happening, they’ve done everything from take out a Times Square billboard to reportedly hacking into 50,000 printers around the world in order to promote their “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme.

The second involves YouTube’s annual year-end “Rewind” video. The 2018 video, released on December 6 and described by YouTube as “a who’s who of internet culture,” omitted a number of popular YouTubers, most notably PewDiePie. (The common theory about why these major players — particularly PewdiePie, Logan Paul, and Jake Paul — were omitted is that they’ve each become less-than-stellar examples of YouTube’s community in recent years.) In response, PewDiePie’s followers started a campaign encouraging people to vote down the video, with the result that within a matter of days, YouTube’s 2018 Rewind video has rapidly overtaken an eight-year-old Justin Bieber single to become the most disliked video in YouTube history, with more than 10 million dislikes.

A representative screencap from YouTube’s 2018 Rewind.

The tactics of mass campaigning, meme-ing, and brigading that PewDiePie supporters have deployed during each of these campaigns are hallmarks of classic online trollishness — the kind that can seem purely jovial and harmless right up until it becomes something more. The most notable example of “something more” is Gamergate, the misogynistic movement that began in gaming culture in 2014 and has since expanded into wider, more overtly political harassment campaigns. The movement was born out of the most toxic impulses of gaming culture, and while it is not explicitly linked to PewDiePie or his followers, his deep involvement in gaming culture and Gamergate’s overlap with YouTube communities (including the gaming, Pick-Up Artist, atheist/skeptics, and right-wing political spheres) likely exposed many PewDiePie followers to both its tactics and its alt-right politics.

Given PewDiePie’s high level of influence over followers who are in turn deeply committed to waging meme wars in his name, and given that those followers are deploying the same tools of memeified, joking harassment and brigading that the alt-right is known to deploy, his appearance of flirting with alt-right ideas and rhetoric becomes concerning.

In essence, as Read proposed in the Intelligencer, YouTube’s most influential personality is using his platform in ways that could push millions of his already devoted followers toward online extremism.

“PewDiePie’s status as the standard-bearer of True YouTube gives his position in broader political debates an outsize weight,” Read wrote. “And if you start from the position that PewDiePie is great and his critics unfair (and possibly disingenuous), you may soon find yourself taking on some unfortunate new political positions.”

As Julia Alexander noted in The Verge, the progression that Read describes is already visible; for example, some commenters on the E;R channel have expressed gratitude to the channel for exposing them to Nazi ideology, in some cases “thanking E;R for bringing attention to some of Hitler’s speeches.”

The frustrating nature of PewDiePie’s flirtation with alt-right culture is that by repeatedly dismissing criticism as oversensitivity and insisting he’s just being satirical, he maintains the plausible deniability that the alt-right counts on to aid in distilling its messaging throughout mainstream culture.

Members of various alt-right movements, including the owner of the E;R channel, appear to be fully aware of this. On his Gab account, when another user asked him, “What is the best way to red pill people on the (((Jewish Question))),” the owner of the E;R channel responded, “Pretend to joke about it until the punchline /really/ lands.”

But as the latest controversy around PewDiePie illustrates, his jokes have failed to land with many, and when examining the reach of PewDiePie’s influence alongside his apparent drift toward the far right, it’s increasingly difficult to laugh.

Update: This story has been revised and expanded to add greater background context and information about the people and subcultures under discussion.

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