The PewDiePie Populist Revolt

YouTube the platform and YouTube the establishment are two very different things. YouTube the establishment produces its hyper-cringe and out of touch version of a “YouTube rewind”, which is more what YouTube would look like if it was monopolized by Hollywood. Like any entrenched elite class, YouTube is fundamentally out of touch with its user base. We saw how that dynamic played out in the 2016 election, and a similar phenomenon is panning out in the virtual sphere.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump had something in common: their ability to harness social media maximally. They understood how the game was played in a way few politicians did, while being inexperienced in their own right.

Both men came to power in retaliation to the status quo, that much is obvious. An angry and disillusioned electorate put them in power to chart a different course than they were lead on in the decades before, which partially explains why there is a 13% overlapping voter base between the otherwise totally opposite men. A detached elite class will spark a reaction from its subjects. This is as true of the internet as it is countries. And few platforms are as singularly powerful as YouTube. As it panders more and more to a minority of people who are forever on the lookout for white villains, a space widens to mock it for its ridiculousness.

In the battle for humor, Felix Kjellberg is, as a matter of incidence, drafted to the frontlines of this cultural struggle. Though a YouTuber who’s never been political, he’s signaled that he isn’t going to play along with the alleged morality of YouTube’s establishment politics. From positively reviewing Jordan Peterson’s book to featuring Ben Shapiro on a meme review, it’s become clear that he’s unwilling to conform to the increasingly accepted view on the left: that these sort of people are morally suspect—not be engaged with or normalized.

This isn’t allowed for the most subscribed account on YouTube. He’s expected to play his part as the perpetually apologetic, pale-faced internet funnyman. Instead, he chooses to avoid politics where he can, which evidently isn’t enough anyway. Almost every week we have a new pretend “outrage” at Kjellberg’s supposedly alt-right connection.

It typically goes like this: Kjellberg finds something funny, the culprit he’s highlighting turns out to be right-wing, and we are expected to believe that instead of just finding that one thing funny Kjellberg believes in the totality of what that person believes. Obviously this isn’t true, but if you step inside of his most paranoid critics’ minds you’ll understand what motivates the constant attacks he faces and we’re so used to.

In their view, right-of-center thinking is a thought pathogen to be quarantined. No matter what Felix does or doesn’t believe, the fact that he isn’t pre-emptively apologizing for his racial identity, gender, and sexual orientation makes him automatically suspect. Given that he merely engages right-wing figures on occasion, that’s enough to convict him already.

As those attacks have mounted from such outlets as Vox, The Verge, and most notably The Washington Post, which calls this series of events the “forever war of PewDiePie.” It’s an article that claims to connect all of those dots, proving decisively that Felix is an Alt-Right fellow traveler. It’s article hinges on a 16 year old by the name of “Erin”, who is apparently never introduced but who we’re told a “friend” of Felix’s, who feels betrayed by his “racism.”

Erin, now 16, had been watching PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, for years by then. She understood that when PewDiePie paid two strangers through a freelancing service called Fiverr to hold up a sign that read “Death to All Jews,” the stunt was intended as extreme humor meant to criticize Fiverr — even if she thought it crossed a line. But this wasn’t just some random online stranger. This is a person she felt she knew.

The article continues to echo the feelings of Felix’s most driven attackers, writing “In another reality, the 2017 Wall Street Journal article would have ended Kjellberg. Instead, Kjellberg became YouTube culture’s antihero.” That reality is the one we’re inching toward, and it’s a reality with a zero tolerance policy for edgy humor or easily made lapses in judgement. That’s the one that a small minority of journalistic and technocratic elites are striving to usher in at all costs. And it’s in rejection to this zero tolerance for boundary pushing humor that the “Subscribe to PewDiePie” meme was mostly brought about. It was implicitly understood that the likes of PewDiePie were excluded from YouTube’s end of the year lineup because it was a lineup meant to appease corporate left wing sensibilities. Creators like Kjellberg can and are made unfairly controversial just by being attacked in articles like the ones from the Washington Post and Vox, which laser-focus on ridiculously benign non-events, such as Kjellberg sharing a TikTok of far-right provocateur Baked Alaska.

Vox doesn’t think it’s possible to interpret that in good faith, though. Because Felix doesn’t parrot their script, any coincidence like this is evident proof that he knows exactly what he’s doing. Any argument that he, like everyone else who uses the internet, just shares things he thinks are funny without rigorously profiling the creators themselves is whitewashing his behavior. Just take a look at that Washington Post attack on Felix:

Alex Jones spent days last summer trying to get Kjellberg to collaborate with him, after the YouTuber followed Jones’s Twitter account. There’s little evidence that Kjellberg actually is an Infowars fan. But a lot of right-wing YouTube, including Jones, has felt that when Kjellberg talked about the media, he sounded an awful lot like them.”

To a reasonable observer, his following of Alex Jones makes sense. Alex Jones is a meme and Felix hosts a show called Meme Review. This piece of alleged journalism, however, translates more or less to: it doesn’t matter if you actually are a fringe-right winger, only if you sound like one.

If the media’s treatment of Kjellberg sounds familiar, it should. This same script is applied to Elon Musk all the time. Any wealthy, popular white man who criticizes the utterly horrid state of modern day reporting is automatically associated with Donald Trump, oftentimes explicitly. In fact, Elon Musk sums this stunning dishonesty up best in a tweet responding to a journalist who does just that. Instead of recognizing their folly and confronting that maybe, just maybe, they’ve lost their ability to judge people free of political biases, they choose to triple down on their right-wing fear mongering. The reason the journalist class is so ready to further tank their credibility stems from an impotent frustration. They after all can’t do much about the fact millions of users are rejecting social justice laced media and instead rallying around culturally consequential figures like Kjellberg and Musk. It’s largely for this reason that Trump won the 2016 election, and in very much the same way people will continue to Subscribe to PewDiePie.

Christian O'Brien