Splash Damage

How PewDiePie’s tantrums worsen media distrust in the YouTube gaming community. And what games journalists can do about it.

A still from the Alaware survival game, “Distrust.”

By Luke Winkie

We have witnessed the scene so many times, it’s almost a ritual. Gaming superstar Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg sits in his insulated studio, ranting against the latest media company on his enemies’ list. Today it’s Vox Media, in particular Verge journalist Julia Alexander, one of the few people on Earth who covers YouTube as a full-time job. Alexander’s crime was writing a piece detailing an incident whereby PewDiePie, amid a string of shout-outs, highlighted a white-nationalist YouTube channel. Alexander also detailed Kjellberg’s previous controversies, of which there are many. Anyone familiar with the PewDiePie brand knows how the routine ends: with Kjellberg pleading ignorance, questioning the credentials of the reporter or outlet in question and — his go-to finishing move — boasting of his reach and power.

“I have more influence than a lot of media outlets,” he says. “That’s not me flexing, that’s a fact. And they hate that.‘We cannot keep letting him get away with this! Why is no one stopping him!’”

It shouldbe obvious there is no industry-wide plot by jealous games journalists to assassinate the characters of YouTubers. But this is 2019, and long-standing public perceptions of the press are out the window. The rot left by GamerGate continues to metastasize within gaming culture. PewDiePie’s vinegary accusations against the media have especially powerful ripple effects that we are just beginning to grasp. Last month, a group of hackers broke into the Wall Street Journal’s CMS to post a false apology for “misrepresenting” their favorite YouTuber. In 2017, the Journal published a report accurately detailing PewDiePie’s telling of Nazi jokes in his videos. A seething Kjellberg responded by claiming the paper held a personal grudge against him. This, in turn, unleashed a windfall of support and fresh conspiracy theories from legions of fellow YouTubers. Today the relationship between the media and YouTube games community is more tense than ever.

In one sense, the mainstream media does fear the undertow of YouTube, though not for the reasons PewDiePie thinks.

“What [PewDiePie] says to his subscribers is, ‘Everything they write is biased and slanted and they’re not to be trusted,’” says Alexander. “It trickles down to audiences. It trickles down to other YouTubers, it trickles down to Twitter and Reddit.”

It trickles down to the art of reporting, too. I do a lot of work for Kotaku, PC Gamer, and other enthusiast publications, and I cannot fully express the delicate touch it takes to write about gamers in 2019. My favorite stories involve the men and women who give life to strange, wonderful subcultures, like the people who construct ultra-technical Guitar Hero charts, or record soothing ASMR dispatches set in the brutal Dark Souls universe. It’s a beat that forces you to venture into unknown Discord channels and break bread with characters you’d never meet otherwise. Lately, it feels like the more these people watch YouTube, the more they are likely to have charged, false and extreme opinions about the publications you write for.

Gaming journalists have been forced to devise tricks to demonstrate we aren’t the enemy. Navigating this suspicion has given us a unique perspective of the orneriness of the platform, as figures like PewDiePie have transitioned from everyman gamers, to aggrieved despots with chips on their shoulder; and as the “fake news” era has morphed from a political slogan to a default cultural stance with real world fallout.

How did this state of affairs come to be? The industry was still reeling and sputtering from Gamergate when a charismatic troublemaker decided to make villains of journalists accurately covering his incendiary commentary. Now we accept this antagonism as standard operating procedure. This cycle appears endless and doomed, and we will have to come up with more creative strategies if we are to find our way out. This doesn’t mean acquiescing to Kjellberg’s conspiracy theories or giving his politics a pass. It means finding a smarter way to fight the war.

* *

As with many polarizing public figures, PewDiePie has thin skin. He’s also earned his critical coverage. But to grasp the larger relationship between YouTube gamers and the legacy media, we need to start with a more charitable reading of the unique position of PewDiePie and people like him. At least, that’s the view of Crystal Abidin, who literally wrote the book on internet celebrity, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online.

“We all know that viewership, eyeballs, and metrics don’t always lead to money,” says Abidin. “These YouTubers have to hyper-narrativize, or make hyper-visible, their living conditions, the struggles they feel. Even the biggest YouTubers are doing this. You never want to appear like you’ve ‘arrived’ or ‘made it.’ That takes away from the notion that influencers began as normal people who organically became famous on the internet.”

According to Abidin, Everyman Empathy is crucial to the brands of even the biggest YouTube success stories. Much has been made about the concord influencers create with their followers — and how that’s made them un-cancelable in a political climate that’s otherwise quick to judgment. Fewer, though, have noticed that growing media scrutiny has given Kjellberg a way to humanize himself and deflect legitimate criticism. His proletariat gamer roots reappear on cue every time a media outlet like Vox takes his own words seriously.

After linking to an alt-right channel, or making anti-Semitic comments, PewDiePie can’t reasonably claim the status of an innocent bystander. But the question remains why so many of his fans continue to forgive him over and over again. He is famous, but the intimacy of YouTube allows him to eschew some of the same expectations we might throw upon a traditional celebrity. Yes, there’s obviously a segment, maybe larger than we think, of right-wing admirers who enjoy Kjellberg’s turns for ideological reasons. But it’s unlikely they represent the majority of his viewers. Most of the people who love PewDiePie, regardless of political affiliation, will always take his side for other reasons.

The research on this is well-established. PewDiePie has put out a video a day for seven years. When he walks up to the line (or goes flying over it) he does so confident that his audience will be with him out of a loyalty built up over thousands of intimate videos. Alt-right shout-outs are flagrant fouls to outsiders, but young fans of YouTubers regard them as personal friends and even family members, and defend them as such. This is why Logan Paul barely lost a step after posting a fresh suicide on his channel, or why JonTron is back to making his usual gamer diatribes two years after publicly expressing his phrenology takes. The browbeating is never going to beat the infrastructure, emotional and otherwise.

I’ve personally grown tired of the media waiting for a point of no return on YouTube. PewDiePie is not going to change, and the culture in his wake is not going to change. What can change is the way we go about our coverage to re-estabish the trust and credibility needed to challenge dangerous political currents in the community.

One of the most salient points in Alexander’s reporting involves the relative infancy of the YouTube reporting beat. That newness leads to growing pains, and while nobody should be making excuses or apologies for far-right politics, it’s worth remembering that a lot of creators are still learning what it’s like to be written about by the mainstream press. They’re not used to having their content spill over into uncharted territory. You saw it in PewDiePie’s initial response to the Wall Street Journal, where he looked overwhelmed and cornered after being confronted with his fame and its associated responsibilities for the first time in his career. It’s only natural that he returned to the place he’s most comfortable — stoking the empathy of his fans by finding a common enemy.

The unfamiliarity makes it easy for influencers to paint reporters as an interloping and even unnatural presence in their world. The crux of PewDiePie’s conspiracy theories, and their residual effect in the games community, is that the people who cover YouTube don’t belong to YouTube. If you know the platform well, you know that there’s an entire network of armchair pundits who offer takes on YouTube drama using the trappings of a faux Meet the Press. They serve as de facto news sources for the culture.

Philip DeFranco, one of the best examples of the archetype, has been posting YouTube videos since 2006.His bona fides are never interrogated the way that Julia Alexander’s have been, which is ironic considering that Alexander was a YouTube fan long before she was a YouTube reporter. That’s one of the things she’s working to bring to the front more. She loves the culture, and wants to see it get better and more equitable, as a voice from inside the community.

“We try really hard at The Verge to find the really positive stuff [on YouTube] or write about the cool trends we see,” she adds. “Through that, creators understand that we are investing time in them and are trying to understand them. And because of that, they’ll read us and try to understand us.”

Abidin thinks journalists developing social brands outside of the publication they represent is a step in the right direction. A good example of this is Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek, the reporter responsible for some of the biggest scoops in the history of the industry, and who also routinely records podcasts and streams on Twitch. This parallel identity forces influencers to meet reporters eye to eye and could help mitigate any conspiratorial suspicions. “It makes them understand you as a person, rather than just a member of the media or a writer,” she explains. “In other words, you become a mini-influencer yourself in order to cultivate trust.”

Aside from this role-reversal, which has the potential to create its own problems, what other strategies can help stem the tide of YouTube misinformation campaigns? By doing smarter, better, more nuanced reporting. By embedding ourselves deeper into the networks, by representing ourselves as advocates, and by building tighter relationships with the people we cover.

“We need to stop pretending that collecting tweets, or collecting YouTube sentiments, is news. That’s really lazy,” says Abidin. “Journalists have tended to use ‘calling out’ as the end goal. That’s good for hits and eyeballs, but it’s not helpful for the general public. And it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of influencers.”

It may be idealistic to believe bitter perceptions of the media can be changed by better media practices. But it’s not like we have a choice. As the influence of the YouTube community grows, the stakes of failure are too high.

Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. He contributes to Vice, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vox, and Gizmodo, among others.

Production Details
V. 1.0.0
Last edited: January 18, 2019
Author: Luke Winkie
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: Distrust / Alaware