The Media and Pewdiepie: A Lesson in Sensationalism

Hi, My Name is Pewdiepie

The first time I heard about Pewdiepie was sometime last year, when I came across an article on twitter describing how some entitled white male gamer was making millions off playing video games on YouTube. I felt disgusted. This was just what the world needed, another white man-child making millions and flaunting his wealth cause he’s famous. A British male Kim Kardashian. Perfect.This is probably where my knowledge of Pewdiepie would’ve ended if not for what I did next.

Out of curiosity, I went on Youtube, and watched one of his videos at random. My immediate reaction was even more disgust. As anyone who watches Pewdiepie knows, there’s a formula: funny/weird accents, crass humor, edited memes, and lots of screaming. It was chaotic to watch but for some reason, I watched another video. Then another. And before long, I’d become a ‘bro’.

I’m an African woman in my twenties who works at the intersection of tech, finance, and heavy industries, and I’m especially partial to comics like Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Kevin Hart, and Seth MacFarlane. I like crass, irreverent humor. I’ve described it to my friends as something like this: imagine standing at the edge of a cliff with a bungee rope. You jump over that cliff but you’ve got that rope to snap you back up to surface/safety — that’s what this is. This kind of humor definitely crosses the line. There’s no doubt about it. In fact, in many cases the point is to cross that line, but somewhere there’s a catch, a punchline, some context, that snaps you back into acceptable territory. That’s the sort of humor you like if you like any of the comics listed above. That’s the sort of humor you consistently get with any of the comics I listed above. On finding Pewdiepie, and after actually watching 10s of his videos all the way through, that’s the sort of humor I’ve come to occasionally get with Pewdiepie.

Pewdiepie. You’ll probably feel stupid every time you have to say/write that name, and that alone should clue you into the general mood of his channel. His channel practically abounds in silliness and thrives on the absurd. If you’re looking for serious political commentary, this is the wrong place to get it.

Pewdiepie’s audience is crazily diverse. I’ve bonded with my boss (white guy, 30s), my favorite starbucks barrister (Japanese guy, 20s), and my hair styler (Jamaican woman, 30s- she knew about him long before I did) over Pewdiepie. My mum (a 50+ year old African woman) is his biggest fan and she discovered him through her Jewish co-worker who also loves him. My 17 year old cousin living in Nigeria loves his gaming videos.

Pewdiepie’s channel practically abounds in silliness and thrives on the absurd. If you’re looking for serious political commentary, this is the wrong place to get it.

I know lots of people who love Pewdiepie, many others who could maybe spare him a ha ha or two, and a legion of people who, to put it lightly, despise his very existence. The vast majority of people I know haven’t ever heard of him. It might be noteworthy to add several of the people I know who can’t stand Pewdiepie, have either never watched his videos or have seen 1 at most.

And that’s okay.

What is not okay, is what I turned on my computer to see first thing on Tuesday morning.

Pewdiepie, the Fascist

On Valentine’s Day, the Wall Street Journal published this. My first reaction was, well, nothing. I think I hadn’t actually processed what I’d read, and I went on with the rest of my morning — showering, boiling water for blueberry tea, and looking for my lint remover. It was only after sitting down to breakfast that it hit me, and at that very moment my phone buzzed with texts from friends asking if I’d heard what happened.

The WSJ essentially published a hit piece on Pewdiepie, one somewhat similar to the article I’d read a year ago that also happened to be my introduction to Pewdiepie. On the article itself, I can say only this: read the WSJ article, then go on Youtube and watch the videos those clips were taken from and make your own conclusion. I imagine afterwards you might see nothing wrong in his videos and think he’s funny. You might think he’s being outrightly offensive and/or think he’s funny or not. You might think he’s only being provocative and/or is kinda sorta funny but not really. These are all okay.

If after watching his videos you think he is a fascist, then come back here and we’ll have a discussion in the comments.

The Big Bad Pewdiepie or The Big Bad Media

According to “the media”, first, Pewdiepie’s videos contained anti-semitic content. Then, Pewdiepie supported fascists and alt-right groups. Now, Pewdiepie is an outright fascist.

I want to believe this gross misrepresentation and the colossal outrage is due to Trump-fatigue and that these guys ultimately mean well. How else can one explain the lazy arguments and false equivalences we’re seeing vis a vis Trump and Pewdiepie?

It must be very frustrating to be a journalist right now. The media is being demonized every other day by none other than the president of the United States of America. The POTUS complains almost daily that the media quotes him wrongly when oftentimes he flat out lies or knowingly makes untrue statements or repeatedly makes contentious claims without evidence — all of which are unacceptable from anyone much less the president of the United States. He’s a powerful person to take on, and it’s doubly frustrating when the media doesn’t even want to take him on (who would want to take on their own President for no reason?) and are just trying to get their facts right. We get that.

On the other hand, there’s Pewdiepie: a 27-year old Swedish celebrity on Youtube who has occasionally complained that the media only ever acknowledges him for how much he makes and not much else. He’s repeatedly complained about click-bait articles headlining his salary, sometimes grossly over/under-estimating it, and instances where after giving interviews on his gaming, philanthropic endeavors, etc, the media consistently only emphasizes how much money he makes. He has also repeatedly complained about the media taking his videos out of context, selecting video clips that are radioactive when viewed on their own, and writing entire articles based on these clips. These are all pretty common sense things to get pissed about.

It was therefore with no small amount of irony that I re-read the WSJ article, and undoubtedly noticed several video clips were taken out of context and a whole article (several articles since then) was written on these clips and the conclusion was that Pewdiepie is fascist and/or supports fascism. Many of these articles have been written by middle-aged journalists who, I strongly suspect, don’t watch Pewdiepie’s channel or are only vaguely familiar with his content.

Exhibit 1: WIRED reported: “In this face-swapping video he repeatedly uses an image of actress Leslie Jones to represent Harambe, the gorilla killed in the Cincinnati zoo last year. I shouldn’t have to explain what’s wrong with that.” To their credit, they link the Harambe video. Now guys, please watch it.

Now, am I the only person who got that it was a bot created by Microsoft, ProjectMurphy, that made the swaps? Am I the only one who thinks, “In this face-swapping video he repeatedly uses an image of actress Leslie Jones to represent Harambe” is, well, flat out wrong?

At some point you’ve got to ask, if these journalists can read, write, see, and hear, then why on earth would they publish this? There are several examples like this but I really don’t want to fill up my post with Youtube videos. Again, guys, actually watch the videos.

As you would expect, there’s been pushback. Several people are pointing out the painfully obvious here, and rather than acknowledge this, the media has chosen to double down. Some journalists continue to insist that Pewdiepie is fascist and in the process reach all the way up their asses for comparisons that are inevitably flawed.

The reach is strong in this one.

Here is Brian Hiatt, senior writer at Rolling Stone, asserting that Pewdiepie is “peddling ironic hate to 9-year olds”. First, let me just say that if your 9-year old watches Pewdiepie’s channel, ironic hate should be the least of your concerns. Incidentally, this is like saying Seth MacFarlane re: Family Guy is peddling “foul language” to children. What your kid watches is your responsibility, not MacFarlane’s and not Pewdiepie’s. And anyone would expect this to be common sense, but this is exactly the sort of ‘rational statements’ middle-aged journalists, not college kids, are making in print and online.

How can they expect not to be ridiculed?

I want to believe this gross misrepresentation and the colossal outrage is due to Trump-fatigue and that these guys ultimately mean well. How else can one explain the lazy arguments and false equivalences we’re seeing vis a vis Trump and Pewdiepie?

As a third example, consider this: Pewdiepie uploaded a response video, outlining specific instances where the WSJ article misrepresented him, listed other instances where other news outlets published misleading information a la click-bait titles, told “the media” to fuck off, and apologized for the third time, for the Fivrr video.

Some hours after Pewdiepie’s video, Ben Popper, editor at The Verge wrote this article.

Unless “being held accountable by the Press” means consistently taking clips out of context — which nobody should be proud of, you might just be right.

Notice Mr. Popper not once addresses any of the listed instances Pewdiepie says he was misrepresented and/or taken out of context. Also notice Mr. Popper ignores where Pewdiepie says twice in this video that he has accepted the criticism and will keep that in mind going forward. Instead, Mr. Popper gives us this:

That’s just it. The parallels are striking. I hope to God your argument doesn’t end here though.
This literally made me watch Pewdiepie’s response video again and, basically, I’m still scratching my head.
I’d say, in this case, you are doing a fine job of that all by yourselves.

According to Mr. Popper, Pewdiepie’s apologies are “half-hearted” though how he’d know that, I couldn’t tell you. Also according to Mr. Popper, Trump and Pewdiepie are both wary of the media, for arguably different reasons, and are therefore more or less the same.

It is ironic that the media seems to have more in common with the alt-right groups they’re vilifying, as these are the only groups of people who continue to insist that Pewdiepie is fascist, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

There’s enough irony to go around. Every person I’ve told to read the WSJ article and other articles in the same vein and then watch Pewdiepie’s videos, agreed there’s gross misrepresentation here and that for all his faults, the fascist, racist, and sexist labels are unwarranted. Also, the more people point that out, the more it looks like the media’s been caught with their pants down. It’s ironic that Ben Popper shifts the blame for this on Pewdiepie.

It is ironic that the media are themselves reinforcing the narrative of a dishonest media with every article that refuses to address the misrepresentations raised by Pewdiepie, Markiplier, etc. and instead doubles down on the claim that Pewdiepie is a Nazi.

It is ironic that the media seems to have more in common with the alt-right groups they’re vilifying, than the rest of us, as these are the only groups of people who continue to insist that Pewdiepie is fascist. Whether or not he is fascist seems to be besides the point. Apparently, what Pewdiepie and the rest of us think counts for exactly nothing.

Let’s talk about the Nazis.

Okay. Are there Nazis who watch Pewdiepie’s videos? Of course. 53+ million people are subscribed to Pewdiepie, and considering this is Trump’s America in 2017, there’s bound to be a few in there. I myself see some alt-right idiots every now and then in the comments. But the argument that Pewdiepie is an anti-Semite who is encouraging hate on the internet and strengthening the alt-right, fascists, neo-Nazis and whatever else, makes about as much sense as saying Louis C.K., Seth MacFarlane, and Sarah Silverman (here she dresses up as Hitler right down to the moustache) are fascists and are encouraging the same.

Right now, there is a very real problem of information warfare in the US. Calling the present situation anything besides that would be a gross understatement. Some hours ago, the president of the United States of America listed several established news networks and labeled them “fake news” (a term I personally detest since it was introduced post-11/9). At risk of stating the obvious for the umpteenth time in this post, this is madness.

It’s crazy out here. With Trump screaming “FAKE NEWS, FAKE NEWS” every other day, we’re all nearly losing our heads in all the chaos. The last thing we need is the media losing their heads right along with us. And that’s what that Pewdiepie article is — the Media losing their heads.

The media, more than anyone, need to remain level-headed and determined to root out and hold accountable all the fascists who are threatening our (well, your) democracy. Yes, news of fascism, racism, etc are the Zeitgeist. Yes, any news related to this would be timely, necessary, and undeniably good for business (if we’re going strictly by link clicks). Yes there are people actively funding and encouraging nazism/fascism and the media is right to hunt them down. Thing is, Pewdiepie is not your guy, and please stop trying to make him your guy.

WSJ made a mistake, or at the very least, grossly misrepresented someone, and the only decent thing to do is to acknowledge it.

Notes:

I am more than aware that “the media” is not a monolith but a multi-faceted group of news networks committed to an unbiased reporting of the news. For the sake of the simplicity in this blog post, you’re all one entity.