Disney has cut ties with YouTube’s most popular star after he posted a series of videos featuring anti-Semitic clips and messages.
PewDiePie has 53 million subscribers on YouTube, is part of original content network YouTube Red, and is affiliated with Disney’s MakerStudios brand, where he has his own network. But that latter relationship is now over after the Wall Street Journal uncovered nine videos in which the Swedish star — real name Felix Kjellberg — posted anti-Semitic clips or Nazi-related images.
Three videos published in January have since been removed from the channel. They included one skit in which Kjellberg paid a Sri Lanka-based group of men to hold up a sign that read “Death to All Jews,” while another featured a clip of a man dressed as Jesus saying that “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong.” Kjellberg used freelance job finding site Fiverr for both clips. He argued that he wasn’t serious with either and instead wanted to show the things people will do for money.
Maker Studios, which was acquired by Disney in 2014, told the Wall Street Journal that it would end its association with him.
“Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate,” a spokesperson said.
It’s worth noting that YouTube removed advertising from one of the videos, but it did not take action against others nor did it remove any of the videos.
A YouTube representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Writing on his Tumblr blog, Kjellberg — who rose to popularity thanks to videos about gaming and pranks — said the purpose of the examples was “to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online.”
“I picked something that seemed absurd to me—That people on Fiverr would say anything for 5 dollars,” he added. “I think it’s important to say something and I want to make one thing clear: I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes.”
“I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive,” he continued.
Despite his words, neo-Nazi blog The Daily Stormer has latched on to the videos calling Kjellberg “our guy.”
These incidents underline the fractions between traditional planned media and the YouTube-ification of media which grants anyone with a camera the chance to become an influencer. While Kjellberg argues that his content is apolitical, his huge audience, the largest of any channel of YouTube, brings with it a certain level of responsibility on content and messages. That’s particularly true given the large number of children and young people who watch YouTube, and in particular his channel, and may lack the kind of historical context and understanding that Kjellberg assumes them to have.
Ultimately, stars like Kjellberg don’t need MakerStudios — the beauty of YouTube is that independent content can exist without major backers — so it’ll be interesting to see whether he tones down his videos in the future (unlikely) and whether big brands like MakerStudios manage their independent stars differently going forward (possible).
Last year, Warner Brothers was fined for failing to adequately disclose payments to YouTube stars like PewDiePie. The star hit back at media for what he called sensationalizing of the incident, which took place in 2014.
“Yes, I could have disclosed it better. I could have put it above the fold… Basically, all these news articles are using me as a clickbait, putting my name to shame when I didn’t even do anything wrong,” he said.