On February 14th, the Wall Street Journal published an article on Felix Kjellber, otherwise known as PewDiePie, saying that his videos displayed Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic rhetoric. As a result of the hit piece, Disney dropped PewDiePie from their Maker Studio, and YouTube canceled his premium show. Overall, the Wall Street Journal was met with a huge reaction online from their work, with commentators coming out on Pewdiepie’s side or doubling down on him. When I looked into the situation, what I discovered is a deliberate attempt by a major media corporation to bring down and smear one successful content creator. From this incident, I am also confident now more than ever that the efforts of the legacy media will fail and make them further fall into the realms of obscurity.
I first heard of PewDiePie on South Park episode a few years back, and to be honest, I didn’t find him to be that funny. Since he has been in the news lately, I took another look at his work and was impressed by the layers of context he put in it. PewDiePie has been building up his context for his over 50 million subscribers who are mostly made up of Generation Z. Context is essential for understanding Pewdiepie or else his comedy would not make sense; and context what the three journalists at the Wall Street Journal purposefully ignored after watching hundreds of his videos. In their article, they refer to Pewdiepie’s jokes as posts to purposely mislead the reader about the nature of PewDiePie’s content, making it appear that he was serious. The way the Wall Street Journal justified their claims were through guilt by association; the anti-Semitic/white supremacist website known as The Daily Stormer temporarily changed their name to be “Pewdiepie’s Number #1 Fansite.”
On February 12th, PewDiePie released a statement his website denouncing the anti-Semitic websites that supported him and apologized on his channel if he offended anyone. PewDiePie is no stranger to controversy and has apologized in the past for crossing the line. But since his remorse was not convenient for the Wall Street Journal story, it was not included in their final product published two days later. It should not be a surprise though that this happened, in a time where click-bait journalism is rampant, the only way for the legacy media to be competitive in the online space is to publish blatant lies. For too long, corporations like News Corp, Comcast, Time Warner, and other major conglomerates were gatekeepers on what is allowed to be public discourse, and with the rise of political correctness, the range of topics that are allowed to be discussed is becoming smaller and smaller. Yet over ten years since the founding of YouTube, thousands of entertainers and commentators have been filling in the gap that has been left open by political correctness, providing the content that viewers have been craving for and directly threatening the legacy media’s bottom line.
The reason why these corporations and other newer media outlets like Buzzfeed, Slate, etc. are failing is that they completely disregard the context of internet meme culture which consists of trolling and shitposting. By nature, the internet is a place where edgy content thrives; it is not regulated the same way as other mediums such as a television are. In order to understand this meme culture, you have to realize that the central objective of trolling and shitposting is to get a reaction out of people. I have had my fair share of interactions with trolls giving me shit online for being Jewish, so I play along and flash a stoned Pepe with the caption “this is the only way I’m getting baked.” To put it simply, if you take anything too personal on the internet, you lose. Today, there is nothing that irritates the fuck out of the media outlets I listed more than Nazis, and trolls are taking full advantage of it.
A perfect example of this happening is with the meme Pepe the Frog. At the beginning of his internet existence, Pepe was an apolitical meme that expressed a number of different emotions. During the election season, a movement known as the alt-right adopted Trump as their guy and at the same time adopted Pepe as their mascot. Later in 2016 as Trump was running as the Republican nominee, the ADL declared Pepe to be a hate symbol and Hillary Clinton dedicated an entire memo to the cartoon frog. Last month, I wrote an article about Pepe and used the ADL’s own words concerning the use of context; “The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist…The majority of uses of Pepe the Frog have been, and continue to be, non-bigoted.” By listing Pepe to be a hate symbol, they weaponized Pepe to be the premier meme for trolling.
If one truly recognizes the context of what means Pepe today, it is that he embodies the death of the legacy media machine and rise of the new media. By being one of the first memes to be declared as a hate symbol by the legacy media, they elevated Pepe’s power to be a fatal mirror exposing their flaws. Just look at how David Brock’s Media Matters portrays Jim Hoft and Lucian Wintrich; after Hoft tweeted out a picture of him and Lucian flashing the “OK” sign, which is one of the most common Pepe memes, Brock’s organization was quick to call it a hate symbol. If you do not realize it already, the context of their sign is to troll the media IRL, and Media Matters fell right for it.
Pepe may be the catalyst, but he is by no means the only meme that is trolling the media. Now, milk and Trash Doves have been written about for their associations with white supremacy. These articles are not a joke, American journalism has now devolved into calling anything Nazi, and Pewdiepie is merely another victim of this witch hunt. These instances of click-bait are inherently dangerous because it undermines serious hateful actions happening in the world today by equalizing real anti-Semitism with an “OK” sign.
When PewDiePie released his videos joking about Nazis, his audience found it funny while many others found it to be not so much. But to be penalized as severely as much as Pewdiepie has over something that Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and Charlie Chaplin have all done is a complete injustice. The consequences of the Wall Street Journal’s actions will be far-reaching. A generation of young people who are already distrustful of media today will only cement that distrust even more. People who have never heard of Pewdiepie will research his story and find out that he did nothing wrong.