YouTube has come a long way from its beginnings as the place where you uploaded amusing cat videos for your friends. It now mints stars, and its biggest is PewDiePie. The Swedish internet celebrity (real name Felix Kjellberg) shot to fame for his lively, foul-mouthed commentary accompanying his gaming videos and became an anchor for Google-owned YouTube’s effort to become not just a platform but a new kind of Hollywood studio. That aspiration now faces its biggest test: PewDiePie, it turns out, thinks that anti-Semitic Nazi jokes are funny.
At the moment, PewDiePie has more than 53 million subscribers on his channel, nearly twice that of the next-most popular YouTuber. Hes made millions of dollars annually in deals with YouTube and Disney. But Disney axed its relationship with PewDiePie last night after the Wall Street Journal came asking about nine videos PewDiePie posted since August that included anti-Semitic humor and Nazi imagery. (In one, two Indian men who PewDiePie reportedly hired through the freelance platform Fiverr laughed as they unfurled a “Death to all Jews” banner. In another, PewDiePie shows a man dressed as Jesus who says, “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong.”) The videos racked up tens of millions of views before PewDiePie took three of them down.
‘YouTube is both a platform and a content creator; its response reflects an attempt to make that line clear again.’James Grimmelmann
YouTubes response was tepid at first: It reportedly pulled ads from only one of the videos in question. But this morning the company said it was cancelling the second season of PewDiePies show and dropping ads from all of the offending videos, as well as pulling PewDiePies channel from a premium advertising program called Google Preferred.
“This is an age-old story in the advertising world: A company finds that one of the celebrities it sponsors has an image problem,” says James Grimmelmann, a professor of law who studies social networks at Cornell. “The first twist is that streaming stars are now big enough that they raise the same issues as more ‘traditonal’ stars. The second twist is that YouTube is both a platform and a content creator; its response reflects an attempt to make that line clear again.”
In response to the fracas, PewDiePie says he creates content for entertainment and he does not support “any kind of hateful attitudes.” But that explanation doesn’t make the situation any easier for YouTube. The company has recently pushed PewDiePie as the face of its paid subscription service, YouTube Red, hyping Scare PewDiePieas one of its flagship shows. Despite their intertwined fortunes, however, the company would open itself to a barrage of criticism if people saw it giving its star special treatmentor even worse, saw YouTube as tacitly endorsing anti-Semitism.
YouTube said this morning that all sixof PewDiePies remaining videos violated its policiesmeant to protect advertisers from having their ads appear alongside offensive content. (The company wouldn’t say which policy the videos violated specifically). YouTube applies an even higher standard to Google Preferred. But PewDiePies videos do not violate YouTube’s community guidelines, the company says. YouTube says if content is satirical, it can stay online even if it is offensive or in poor taste. If the uploaders intent is to incite violence or hatred, the company says it will remove the videos.
“To my eye thats an odd middle ground,” says Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman, who studies online advertising. “If the content is out of line, as YouTube seems to agree it is, then the natural response would be to remove it altogether.”
And especially during this fraught political moment, YouTube will inevitably face this dilemma again. To succeed as a content producer, it needs to let its creators push boundaries. To succeed as a platform that won’t alienate users or advertisers, it needs to exert quality controlespecially as so many others are seeking to overtake it as the internet’s leading video destination. It needs to keep its stars, viewers, and business partners all happy at the same time. And so when PewDiePie started making Nazi jokes, it had to do something. Now the company has to hope that it also did the right thing.