PewDiePie and the Low Standards for Public Vilification

One week and a litany of articles later, do we know anything more about Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie?

Following an investigative report from The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 14, a flood of media outlets jumped aboard asking the same questions: Is PewDiePie racist? Is he really a Nazi? Other sources, such as Wired, skipped the question entirely to push forward the assertion that he has been racist from the very beginning. Now, given time to reflect, have we reached any certainty on the matter? What has been revealed in the aftermath? The answer surprisingly has little to do with Kjellberg himself.

What has been exposed most significantly over the past several days are, unfortunately, the wavering standards and ethics that drive online media today. This is not to say that PewDiePie is innocent or guilty, but rather, the breadth of research and intellectual rigour used to implicate him have been shockingly lax, and completely inadequate to the task.

The charge of being linked to anti-Semitism or racism are incredibly serious accusations that require careful examination. The original WSJ article, though, rests its case almost entirely on a perfunctory count of the number of times “anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery” were used in a given period.

That is to imply that self-evident meaning can be extracted purely from isolated moments in a particular production; that the mere usage or existence of certain terms or imagery justifies that one be publicly accused and branded. That is the standard of journalism being applied here, yet applied nowhere else in a professional sense. WSJ essentially conducted an investigation without seriously examining the nature of the content in question, or the overall context. And what we are seemingly left with is an emotionally charged ‘perception is reality’ based argument that inherently comes with a lowered threshold for proof.

Articles that followed the WSJ piece shared a similar pattern, but many included a reoccurring emphasis on validating the accusations made of PewDiePie simply by citing a list of objectionable groups that have supported him, along with the flimsy suggestion that overtures were possibly made to them directly by PewDiePie. In many of these articles, detailing the responses of these groups has taken precedence altogether as the primary topic.

This supposed connection seems to now be the prevailing narrative and cause of much of this tense questioning. But however unnerving, let it be clear that this is still an argument established almost exclusively on perception: A direct accusation disguised as an innocent finger pointing out the surrounding “facts”.

Despite this, the outsider who examines these events from afar must still resolve the ambiguity of a person they know little of, with the woefully inadequate reporting of trusted sources. Others may have already dismissed PewDiePie as a racist. Those with familiarity, who don’t require clarification from external sources, are represented by the diverse YouTube community at-large, which has seemingly rallied around PewDiePie, decidedly unconvinced.

What might be advisable now is a collective grip on the proverbial pilot’s stick to pull up and return to prescribed operating guidelines. Standards in news media exist to be applied consistently, and should never be lessened, even when implicating what is believed to be clearly vile and despicable behavior. If anything, those standards would be adhered to more strictly due to the far-reaching implications on a person’s character, but the exact opposite has taken place here. How?

It is a challenge that some media outlets never fully acknowledge, and the respected ones sometimes set aside. But whether forcibly (by loss of credibility) or by free-will, everyone that takes up the mantle of a journalist must invariably return to the practices and standards that formed their occupation, or be left out in the cold. That opportunity presents itself each a time a laptop is opened, with every stroke of a key, and each moment of reflection on how to best represent this tradition, and the topic at hand.