YouTube Stars Rally Around PewDiePie Amid Calls to Ban Him From Platform

On Friday, a terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and took the lives of 49 people. The suspect in custody, a 28-year-old Australian man, live streamed the atrocity on Facebook and shared links to the footage across social media accounts, including controversial internet forum site 8chan. Right before he steps out of his car, assault rifle in hand, he says five words: "remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie."

For those not engrossed in internet culture, the "shout out" to YouTuber Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg seems out of place. With 89 million subscribers and a decade of history on the platform, PewDiePie plays games, makes videos about Tik Tok compilations and discusses memes. He's been in a race with T-Series, an Indian production company that uploads clips from Bollywood movies, to see who can have the most subscribers on the platform. "Subscribe to pewdiepie" became a rallying cry for his fans and soon spread throughout the web and beyond as a way to show one's fluency with meme culture.

Kjellberg condemned the actions of the shooter on Friday, tweeting that having his name attached to this event was "sickening." Even with his condemnation, there are still a few loud voices calling to ban him from YouTube.

Ban PewDiePie. Moderate your content.

— Andrew Pfister (@andrewpfister) March 15, 2019

Pewdiepie follows jordan peterson, ben shapiro, steven crowder, lauren southern, stefan molyneux, and paul joseph watson on twitter as of this morning. Not really defensible at this point.

— RJ Palmer (@arvalis) March 15, 2019

Mainstream outlets began to resurface old controversies in the hours following the shooting. The New York Times news story said that Kjellberg "courted controversy by performing anti-Semitic gestures, which he calls satirical, in his videos." The Washington Post story claims he "flirts openly with Nazi symbolism." However, other YouTubers like JackSepticEye, Markiplier and Elvis the Alien were quick to defend Pewds.

The content creator has had a fair share of controversy in the past, including blurting out the n-word while on stream, promoting the YouTube channel e;r (which has made anti-semitic videos in the past) and posted a video where he paid a group on Fiverr to hold up a sign saying "death to all Jews." These all seem like horrifying examples of internet extremism, but his fan base is quick to defend him, claiming his detractors either don't get the jokes or don't care to put the incidents in context. They also mention the good Kjellberg has done, like raising over $200,000 for Indian charity Child Rights and You or helping an ex-mormon raise money for a legal defense to reclaim custody of his kids.

can you believe people are actually evil enough to put blame on Pewdiepie and actually shame him for it? and it's not because they think its right, it's literally just to shame someone they don't like while they know they can. disgusting, opportunistic, vile people

— Oney (@OneyNG) March 15, 2019

The shooter's 74-page manifesto clearly shows he had a deep familiarity with cyber culture. Posted on file-sharing sites mere minutes before the attack, it is full of internet double-speak and memes. There's the Navy Seals copy pasta (a block of text that's copied and reposted, claiming to be a member of the Navy Seals with over "300 confirmed kills"), mentions of video game franchise Spyro the Dragon and a passage claiming alt-right personality Candace Owens "influenced" him. His stated goals include spreading discontent to start a "culture war."

Other content creators are aware of the repercussions that come with having a devoted fan base. Chad "Anything4Views" Roberts is an Australian content creator who's grown a fan base by lighting his crotch on fire, getting a PewDiePie "brofist" butt tattoo and using edgy jokes to entertain his seemingly young audience. He knows fans can take what he says out of context and twist it to fit their own narrative. "If any of my fans claimed that I radicalized them, they are no fans of mine," Roberts told Newsweek. "If I could out weed out and stop them viewing my content or watching my videos, I would, but when you upload something to the internet, it isn't yours anymore."

Unfortunately, weeding out every undesirable fan and follower is just not an option for a content creator. "Anything us creators do can be twisted like that, it's just people that have something wrong in their brain," Roberts said. "Nothing good can come from what happened, but you have to make do with what's left. In times like this, all creators can do is support Felix, and especially the victims and their families," Roberts said.

"If I could out weed out and stop them viewing my content or watching my videos, I would, but when you upload something to the internet, it isn't yours anymore."

While it may be tempting to link the shooter's call of "Subscribe to PewDiePie" to the content creator himself, the meme no longer belongs to PewDiePie; it has grown into a movement of its very own. Though Kjellberg is far from a saint, to condemn him and his fan base entirely only pushes his fan base even farther away from the middle and towards extremist thought. The danger of disaffected young men being radicalized online has been widely reported, and the terrorist's aim to not only reach PewDiePie's fanbase, but tether them to the blame, further feeds into the cycle.

Julia Alexander, a reporter for The Verge and an authority on YouTube and internet culture, told Newsweek that those throwing the blame at Kjellberg are "largely misguided, but I also haven't seen that much blame targeted directly at him." She believes there is a growing understanding of how memes spread online and "and how an innocuous message about one individual creator's facetious fight against a corporation can become something else."

She said journalists face a difficult task not spreading disinformation during a breaking story like this one. "Understanding what's a meme, born out of toxicity and niche humor on sites like 8chan, and what isn't" is a difficult—but crucial—task. Alexander said journalists shouldn't take the manifesto "at face value" and should "take everything seriously, but not trust anything."

If YouTube does ban PewDiePie, how many of his 89 million followers will look for content on the forums and channels espousing true hate? If the answer is one, then it's one too many.