Millions of people have watched a Jan. 11 video by YouTube’s biggest star that included two men laughing as they held a banner that read, “Death to all Jews.”
The man behind the video is Felix Kjellberg, a 27-year-old Swede known as “PewDiePie,” who has amassed 53 million subscribers. His success has brought him multimillion-dollar deals from YouTube and
Walt Disney Co.
, which owns a firm that runs Mr. Kjellberg’s business.
Since August, PewDiePie has posted nine videos that include anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery, according to a review of his channel by The Wall Street Journal.
On Monday after the Journal contacted Disney about the videos, the entertainment giant said it was severing ties with Mr. Kjellberg, who as PewDiePie rose to prominence via clips of himself playing videogames or performing skits and making crude jokes.
Under the terms of their arrangement, Mr. Kjellberg had editorial independence.
“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,” said a spokeswoman for Maker Studios, the Disney division that was business partners with PewDiePie.
PewDiePie’s account also took down three videos with a total of about 23 million views—the Jan. 11 video, and ones from Jan. 17 and Jan. 22—after the Journal’s inquiries. In the Jan. 22 video, Mr. Kjellberg showed a man dressed as Jesus Christ saying, “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong.”
Mr. Kjellberg said in a video a few days later that the Jan. 11 clip was a joke that went too far.
Google, which owns YouTube, pulled ads that run on its videos from the Jan. 11 video within days of its posting, before it was taken down this past weekend. YouTube hasn’t pulled any of the nine videos in question, though PewDiePie’s account took down three of them. Google hasn’t removed ads from any of Mr. Kjellberg’s other videos.
Mr. Kjellberg didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. On Sunday, he wrote on Tumblr that he wanted to “clear some things up,” specifically that he doesn’t support “any kind of hateful attitudes.” Mr. Kjellberg wrote that he creates content for entertainment, not as political commentary, and understands “these jokes were ultimately offensive.”
The videos illustrate the risk for companies such as YouTube and Disney that, eager to reach young audiences, make deals with talent who may push boundaries on what is acceptable within the company’s standards or basic social norms. By distributing the content to a wide audience, companies are vulnerable to criticism when a user’s words are deemed offensive. In Mr. Kjellberg’s case, a major neo-Nazi website has embraced his statements.
Social media companies also are wrestling with how to address darker forms of speech, whether it is jihadist propaganda or rhetoric from an emerging white-nationalist movement. The dilemma is especially troublesome when it involves prominent figures like Mr. Kjellberg.
for instance, has stepped up efforts to suspend accounts violating its hate speech and harassment rules. It recently banned Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos for violating its abusive content policy, for example. YouTube said it prohibits videos that violate its rules, which include a ban on content that “promotes or condones violence against individuals or groups based on race or ethnic origin [or] religion.”
In reviewing videos, the company said it considers intent as well as the context. “If content is intended to be provocative or satirical, it may remain online. If the uploader’s intent is to incite violence or hatred it will be removed.” YouTube declined to comment specifically on PewDiePie’s videos. Mr. Kjellberg’s videos in recent weeks have drawn the praise of neo-Nazi websites like Daily Stormer, which the Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday dubbed the “top hate site in America.”
On Jan. 23, the site changed its motto to “The world’s #1 PewDiePie fansite,” according to the Internet Archive, celebrating Mr. Kjellberg for “making the masses comfortable with our ideas.”
Mr. Kjellberg is a top earner on YouTube, making roughly $14.5 million last year, according to estimates from social media data firm NeoReach. That amount includes splitting ad revenue with YouTube, as well as sponsorships and appearance fees.
His videos collectively have been watched 14.7 billion times, more than anyone else on YouTube. He has nearly double as many subscriptions as the next top YouTube star and roughly 78% of his viewers are under 20 years old, NeoReach said. His star power helped him secure a multimillion-dollar bonus from YouTube around late 2015 to keep his videos on its site exclusively, according to people familiar with the deal.
A show starring him now anchors YouTube’s subscription service, YouTube Red.
Mr. Kjellberg was since 2012 a part of an online video network run by Maker Studios, which Disney bought in 2014 for $675 million. Last year, after he threatened to leave, Maker formed its first ever joint venture making it and Mr. Kjellberg co-owners of a company that produces videos, mobile apps and merchandise, according to a person with knowledge of the agreement. Now that Disney has ended the joint venture, Mr. Kjellberg’s options are to produce videos independently or find a new partner.
Mr. Kjellberg, who in late December was working out of an old Disney office outside London, has said the media takes his jokes out of context.
“What I just think—and I believe strongly in—is that it is 2017 now,” he said in the Jan. 22 video that was taken down. “We’re going to have to start separating what is a joke, and what is actually problematic.
“Is a joke actually pure racism?” he said. “Is something that would be considered a joke purely homophobic, or anti-Semitic and all these things? Context f—ing matters.”
Mr. Kjellberg’s use of Nazi material dates back to at least Aug. 7, when he began a video with a swastika and other Nazi imagery. Wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat from President Donald Trump’s campaign, Mr. Kjellberg used a photo of Hitler as a segue between clips.
Mr. Kjellberg says the material is portrayed in jest. He showed a clip from a Hitler speech in a Sept. 24 video criticizing a YouTube policy, posted swastikas drawn by his fans on Oct. 15 and watched a Hitler video in a brown military uniform to conclude a Dec. 8 video. He also played the Nazi Party anthem before bowing to a swastika in a mock resurrection ritual on Jan. 14, and included a very brief Nazi salute with a Hitler voice-over saying “Sieg Heil” and the text “Nazi Confirmed” near the beginning of a Feb. 5 video.
In the Jan. 11 video, in which the two men are unfurling the “Death to All Jews” sign, Mr. Kjellberg paid people to do bizarre things via the website Fiverr, which helps freelancers secure part-time work. After he shows himself hiring the men to make the sign, he watches them unfurling the sign while they laugh and dance. Mr. Kjellberg appears to express shock and apologizes, saying “I didn’t think they would actually do it.” He doesn’t explain why he still included the clip in the video, which wasn’t broadcast live. The Indian men, apologized in a video saying “we really don’t know what the message meant when making the video.”
Mr. Kjellberg defended himself from criticism in a Jan. 17 video, saying “I think there’s a difference between a joke and actual like… death to all Jews. If I made a video saying”—Mr. Kjellberg then quickly cuts to a close-up of his face illuminated brightly—“Hey guys, PewDiePie here. Death to all Jews, I want you to say after me: Death to all Jews. And, you know, Hitler was right. I really opened my eyes to white power. And I think it is time we did something about this.” The video then zooms back out and he adds: “That is how they’re essentially reporting this, as if that’s what I was saying.”
Jonathan Vick, an associate director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized Mr. Kjellberg’s apologies. “Just putting it out there brings it more and more into the mainstream,” he said.
Fiverr suspended the accounts of Mr. Kjellberg, the two men in the video and the Jesus actor whom Mr. Kjellberg paid to say, “Hitler did nothing wrong,” according to a person familiar with the matter. Of the actor’s suspension, Mr. Kjellberg said in a later video, “Isn’t it ironic that Jews found another way to f— Jesus over?” Fiverr is based in Tel Aviv.
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