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The controversy over YouTube star PewDiePie and his anti-Semitic “jokes,” explained

Were PewDiePie's months of Nazi imagery "satire" or a blueprint for mainstreaming the alt-right?

YouTube star PewDiePie ‘heils’ himself in a YouTube video posted February 10.
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.

PewDiePie, a.k.a. Swedish gaming vlogger Felix Kjellberg, is the most popular personality on YouTube. His videos of gaming reactions and cultural commentary have garnered him 53 million subscribers. He’s so well-known on YouTube and in gaming circles that in 2014, South Park made an episode about him. And his comedy style — characterized by Kjellberg reacting to “crazy” or “shocking” or “ridiculous” things with performative incoherence — has become a ubiquitous part of YouTube culture.

In most of his videos, Kjellberg babbles nonsensically and screams a lot. But his historical tendency toward inane humor has increasingly evolved into a concerning use of Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic comedy in his videos. And while his loyal fan base staunchly defends his work as satirical in nature, the frequency and apparent lack of a larger purpose for these hateful elements has raised serious concerns about whether he’s just being ironic or crossing a fine line between humor and harm.

A recent Wall Street Journal investigation into Kjellberg’s YouTube channel found a total of nine videos posted since August 2016 that featured Nazi imagery or anti-Semitic humor. In one video posted January 11, Kjellberg hired a pair of performers from the freelance website Fiverr to hold up a sign reading “Death to all Jews,” which he claims was essentially a thought experiment on the nature of the digital marketplace.

As a result of the WSJ’s investigation, Kjellberg has lost two major partnerships — most notably with the Disney-owned Maker Studios, a major multi-channel YouTube network. Maker severed ties with Kjellberg after the WSJ emailed Disney representatives for comment on the content of his videos, and YouTube canceled the second season of his reality show Scare PewDiePie, which had been executive-produced by Maker Studios and The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. YouTube also removed Kjellberg’s channel from eligibility for its preferred-advertising program, which awards perks to the most popular 5 percent of YouTube’s creators.

It seems that both of these corporate partners are only just now realizing the extent of his controversial content — which makes sense, since Kjellberg had independent editorial control over his videos. (Vox has contacted both Disney/Maker Studios and YouTube for comment.) But members of the self-described alt-right have been paying close attention to Kjellberg’s channel for months, noting that he seemed to be making apparent overtures toward the movement and its racist, anti-Semitic beliefs.

The complicating factor here is that Kjellberg insists his humor is satirical and absurdist in nature; the resulting ambiguity is presumably why the content of his videos went unchallenged for so long. And despite the litany of evidence suggesting he’s more sincere in pushing anti-Semitism than he says, fans are rushing to defend Kjellberg’s right to make comedy his way — on a platform that has often turned its head while allowing problematic “shock” humor to flourish.

Kjellberg says his most blatantly anti-Semitic video was an instance of “absurd” humor, but it’s part of a disconcerting trend

On January 11, Kjellberg posted a video mocking a freelance site called Fiverr, which connects users with video content producers around the world. In the video, Kjellberg claims to be testing a theory that he could pay a pair of Indian freelancers to say and do extreme things. Kjellberg asks the freelancers to unfurl a banner reading “Death to all Jews,” laughing about it on camera, and then appears to be horrified when they actually carry out the act. The video was removed from Kjellberg’s channel on February 16, but not before a different YouTuber reposted the segment in question, with Kjellberg’s reactions captured in voiceover:

In a later, now-deleted video in which Kjellberg continued to criticize the absurdity of Fiverr’s freelance service, he showed a clip of an Israeli-based Fiverr freelancer who had made a video while dressed as Jesus and declaring that “Hitler did nothing wrong.” After Fiverr responded by suspending the freelancer’s account (it has since been restored), Kjellberg joked in another now-deleted video, “It’s a little bit ironic that Jews somehow found another way to fuck Jesus over.”

As part of its investigation, the WSJ captured clips from all of these videos, as well as Kjellberg’s initial defense of the “Death to all Jews” video as satire and parody. (Kjellberg had posted said defense to YouTube in response to some viewers who’d found it disturbing and offensive, but later removed it.)

Meanwhile, the WSJ also discovered that Kjellberg had inserted clips of Nazi imagery into many of his other videos. In a January 14 video about the “kazoo kid” meme, Kjellberg included an audio clip of the Nazi Party anthem while bowing over a swastika as part of a “secret summoning ritual.” The WSJ noted that near the beginning of a (since-deleted) February 5 video, Kjellberg also “included a very brief Nazi salute with a Hitler voiceover saying ‘Sieg Heil’ and the text ‘Nazi Confirmed’.”

And in a February 10 video that is ostensibly about people overreacting to his new platinum blond hairdo, Kjellberg tacitly compares himself to Hitler, gives a Nazi salute, and shows a series of clips of Nazi imagery, including a crowd of Nazis saluting, Nazi soldiers marching, and footage of Hitler Youth.

Kjellberg is using Nazi imagery in this video to mock what he seems to believe are histrionic online reactions to his persona. He often uses Nazi imagery to represent something he views as exaggerated and hyperbolic — usually a reaction to himself — and then claims his use of the imagery is satirical. Of course, this has the side effect of turning Nazism into a cheap joke; by routinely comparing himself, a vlogger followed by millions, to Hitler, he’s normalizing Nazi ideology.

And because his more obviously anti-Semitic jokes are delivered indirectly — by Fiverr freelancers, for example — they are likewise full of plausible deniability. Kjellberg has protested the response to his “Death to Jews” video, for example, claiming in a February 12 Tumblr post that he was trying to show “how crazy the modern world is” by paying the freelancers to do something that seemed, to him, to be completely “absurd.” (The two Indian freelancers he hired later apologized, claiming they didn’t know what the message of their sign meant in English.)

“Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive,” Kjellberg wrote.

Kjellberg has not responded to Vox’s request for comment on the content of his videos. He did, however, respond to recent media coverage of his work in a lengthy video posted on February 16, in which he mocked the Wall Street Journal’s choice to cover the story as if it were real news and blasted the media for taking his “jokes” out of context in order to make him look like a Nazi.

He also claimed that controversy over the “Death to All Jews” video boils down to “two generations of people arguing whether it was okay.” He blamed the WSJ for “cherry-picking” and taking several of his videos out of context.

As an example, he claimed that holding out his arm in what appears to be a Nazi “heil” salute was an easily misconstrued gesture. In the video cited above, he uses the gesture while stating, “Little teenage girls will bow before me,” immediately after showing an archival clip of a crowd of Nazis saluting using the same gesture.

The WSJ’s investigation and ensuing media coverage “was an attack by the media to try and discredit me, to try and decrease my influence and my economic worth,” Kjellberg said.

“I do strongly believe that you can joke about anything,” he continued, while also stating, “I do understand that these things have consequences. ... I acknowledge that I took things too far, and that’s something I will try to be aware of going forward, but the reaction and the outrage has been nothing but insanity.”

To many people, PewDiePie seems to have been paying court to the alt-right for months

Kjellberg has long courted rumors that he is a tacit supporter of Gamergate, the anti-feminist gaming movement that directly fed into the online growth of the alt-right. At one time, Kjellberg, along with other notable YouTube personalities in the gaming community, was criticized for remaining silent and refusing to defend feminists who came under harassment during the worst of Gamergate. Though Kjellberg never expressed a specific opinion on Gamergate, some in the Gamergate movement read his lack of comment as a sign that he was on their side.

Over the past six months, members of some gaming forums and 4chan have gradually started referring to Kjellberg as being “redpilled,” a common alt-right metaphor for “waking up” to the “truth” about leftist propaganda. The image below, posted to 4chan’s /pol/ form by an alt-right supporter in December, implies that Kjellberg has adopted the fashion and grooming trends of the neo-Nazi movement, which is characterized by the “working-class” skinhead fashion code of flannel shirts and the “nipster” look — Nazi hipsters with neatly trimmed facial hair.


This isn’t the first time Kjellberg’s fashion choices have been examined as possible coded Nazi symbolism. In August, one neo-Nazi website pointed out several perceived examples of Kjellberg appearing to express Nazi sympathies, including the observation that Kjellberg had appeared in videos sporting fashion arguably similar to Nazi fashion: “recently he has been wearing Himmler style glasses and sporting a fashy [slang for fascist] Hitler Youth haircut.”

The website also noted that Kjellberg had recently included images of Hitler and related Nazi imagery in his videos, and that the references didn’t appear to be ironic in any way, which led the writer to believe Kjellberg was being sincere in his use of them.

In addition to more overt Nazi symbolism, Kjellberg makes references to the alt-right that are veiled but obvious if you know where to look. In one video from late August, he makes an extended racist joke comparing Harambe the gorilla to Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters actress and comedian Leslie Jones, echoing the widespread politically tinged, racist harassment that Jones endured last summer, largely from the alt-right.

And in another video from November, Kjellberg overlays a swastika, along with audio of a speech from Hitler, over unrelated commentary about clickbait YouTube channels. He then goes on to refer to BuzzFeed as “a bunch of cucks” — “cuck” being an alt-right buzzword.

In his February 16 response video, Kjellberg claimed to be unaware of the fact that he had been praised by neo-Nazi groups for months, and referred to his February 12 Tumblr post to serve as his response. In that post, he wrote: “As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way.”

Notably, Kjellberg never specifically explained who “these people” are or identified which “hate-based groups” he might be talking about.

Like many alt-right trolls, Kjellberg appears to be using humor to obfuscate hateful messages

It might still seem strange that more of Kjellberg’s corporate sponsors — not to mention his fans — didn’t raise concerns over his content until after the WSJ contacted Disney representatives for comment. But Kjellberg’s lewd, shock-y humor is part of a well-established YouTube trend: skits and “prank” videos that tend to use similar patterns of surprising the viewer with something unexpected, potentially offensive, or shocking for laughs.

The fact that this aspect of Kjellberg’s comedy flew under the radar for so long speaks to YouTube’s reticence to police its content. As the New York Times notes in an article about Kjellberg’s place within YouTube culture:

The YouTube platform plainly incentivizes such attention-grabbing behavior, right up until the point that it becomes a liability to its operators or their other partners — a familiar dilemma in the entertainment world, sure, but one that plays out quite differently on YouTube, which is considerably and deliberately less hands-on with its talent.

Kjellberg’s ironic shock humor and absurdist presentation seem to have provided a comfortable screen for many of his viewers to reject the recurring imagery as just part of the gag. Despite numerous examples pointing to an unironic connection between Kjellberg and the beliefs of the alt-right, plenty of his followers have rushed to echo his defense of his humor as satirical.

Spreading anti-Semitic themes and racist propaganda through “humorous” memes disguised as satire and “just trolling” has been an openly embraced tactic of the alt-right, and it has propelled the movement’s abrupt rise in power and influence.

Kjellberg’s presentation of Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic messaging is perfectly aligned with the way the alt-right uses memes and self-aware irony to obfuscate the sincerity of its message. And the fact that he was able to produce multiple videos that tiptoed this line despite having the largest subscriber base on YouTube illustrates just how effective it is as a tactic.

Even now, the videos have left people confused about his level of sincerity and have garnered massive defenses of his right to continue using Nazi imagery as “satire.” One recent trend has been for fans to compare Kjellberg’s comedy to that of Mel Brooks in The Producers.

Among those who took sarcastic notice of the trend was Film Crit Hulk:

There are vast differences between the random non sequitur arrangements of Kjellberg’s Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic jokes and the layered, sophisticated humor of a Mel Brooks parody. Films like The Producers and To Be or Not to Be always framed Nazi ideology as fundamentally abhorrent while engaging frankly with Brooks’s identity as a Jewish entertainer trying to comprehend the Holocaust.

Jokes like Kjellberg’s — unfunny comparisons of a black woman to a gorilla, unsophisticated messaging that Jews should die, randomized insertions of speeches from Hitler into commentary on other topics — undermine, rather than illustrate, the fundamental abhorrence of racist ideas and Nazi ideology. Their construction is designed to make you question whether Kjellberg actually believes what he’s saying, which in turn causes you to question whether the ideology itself is indeed shameful. Even if Kjellberg sincerely rejects alt-right philosophy, his comedy aligns with actual alt-right propaganda.

“Some people have been saying that these jokes are normalizing hatred,” Kjellberg stated in his February 16 response video. “Spoilers — it’s not, unless there’s 53 million Nazis watching me for some reason.” He later quipped that displaying the “bro-fist” gesture to his fans was “a secret Nazi salute.”

It’s worth noting that in the past, Kjellberg has used his platform and celebrity for good, crowdfunding more than $300,000 for charity in 2014. His ability to meaningfully connect to his audience is undeniable.

But it’s hard to look at his recent string of alt-right allusions as existing in a vacuum during a moment when neo-Nazi politics has abruptly jumped into the international spotlight. As much as Kjellberg might wish for his comedy to be seen as over the top and exaggerated, Disney and YouTube’s respective reevaluations of their business relationships with him are a bold reminder that we’re living in a historical period when joking about controversial subjects is a more tenuous proposition than ever — and one that could have serious real-world repercussions.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kjellberg paid a freelancer to make a video stating “Hitler did nothing wrong.” Kjellberg did not pay the freelancer but showed a clip of the video in one of his own.