It's been a little over a month since the blow-up surrounding Felix "Pewdiepie" Kjellberg, and the Wall Street Journal report leading to the cancellation of his premium show. Since then, a lot has happened to the YouTuber and to at least one of the reporters who worked on that story.
For Pewdiepie, it's been a month of roiling emotions, including anger, intentionally taboo jokes, and an intensified critique of the press, some of which he now tells Kotaku that he could have handled differently. For one of the reporters involved in the piece, it's been a month of Twitter backlash from furious Pewdiepie fans, but that reaction has been met mostly with silence by him and the outlet that employs him.
To quickly recap: The original WSJ article reported that Disney was severing ties with the YouTube star after the paper presented it with several examples of Pewdiepie making jokes about Jews or Nazis, including a video in which he paid freelancers to hold up a sign that read "Death To All Jews." While Pewdiepie said some of the references had been taken out of context, he also apologised for jokes he that he admitted went too far. A day later, YouTube cancelled the second season of the Scare Pewdiepie premium show.
The Journal article had three bylines, but since it ran, the person who has suffered the brunt of harassment on social media has been business entertainment reporter Ben Fritz. Fritz had the third byline, usually an indicator of having been least involved with a piece. For weeks now, Fritz's Twitter mentions have been a mess of people demanding that he get fired, blaming him for damage done to Pewdiepie. Rolfe Winkler and Jack Nicas, the first two bylines, have gotten slight pushback on social media, but not nearly as much. On YouTube, Fritz has become the face of the newspaper thanks to a video where those freelancers from Kjellberg's earlier video decided to hold up a new sign that read "Hypofritz." The portmanteau, which has now become a hashtag, spun out of old Fritz tweets dug up by Kjellberg supporters. In the 2009 Tweet, Fritz is talking about a Hanukkah party and remarks that he "had no idea Jews were so adept at frying". That, combined with Fritz's South Park avatar on Twitter, were enough to brand Fritz a hypocrite in the eyes of Pewdiepie's fans — the thinking being, how could someone who seemingly appreciates crass humour "go after" a comedian like Pewdiepie?
Fritz has not reacted to this publicly, but regardless, those who have been swarming his every tweet with questions about why he still has a job have put the bulk of the responsibility on a single journalist, who people assume must feel a certain way about Kjellberg's brand of humour. We reached out to Fritz and the Wall Street Journal, but they did not comment. In a follow-up piece on February 16, well before the harassment kicked into high gear, a WSJ spokesperson said that the paper "stand[s] by the reporting".
As the weeks went by, Kjellberg continued to pour petrol on the fire. Rather than refraining from making Nazi references, he made some more, though with the new context of skewering his critics. In game footage from last month, Kjellberg pretended to kill Hitler in jest, so that he could get a "free pass" on his humour. The YouTube description for this video, which is currently the top featured footage on his channel, says the whole thing is "sponsored by WSJ". In another video, he called a character a "secret Barbie Nazi" for lifting her arm, which Kjellberg has repeatedly suggested is a goof that alerts the Wall Street Journal to nefarious content. Earlier this month, Kjellberg uploaded a Conan Exiles video where he pretends to play as Hitler while also name-checking the Wall Street Journal. More recently, he pretended that a cardboard cutout of Danny Devito called Kjellberg a Nazi, in reference to the wider controversy. Some call-outs offer a visual gag where Ben Fritz, or the word "Hypofritz" are pictured. These references have become sparser recently, but they still pop-up as in-jokes from time to time.
Kjellberg's decision to keep banging that drum is a bit surprising when you consider that he apologised for the stunt that set everything off, claiming that he was taking it as a "a learning and growing experience". Moreover, in a different follow-up on March 3, Kjellberg said, "Obviously I'm not going to see [the controversy] some way to provoke or start drama, I have really no intentions of doing that... it's not something I thrive on." Despite acknowledging that his jokes went "too far", and claiming that he didn't want to start drama, Kjellberg did not make a clean break from what was happening. Many of these jokes are forced, and Kjellberg knows it: At one point during the Conan Exiles video, he grimaces after saying, "Hitler did nothing wrong," noting that his tired shtick is "not a video, it really isn't".
More than a month since this all started, Kjellberg says that making these jokes were his way of dealing with a difficult time.
"I think when events like this have occurred you can either stay sad, angry or laughing afterwards," he told Kotaku in an email. "I think laughing is the best way and making jokes is by no means a way to further provoke. I'm moving forward from everything that happened but that doesn't mean I'm going to pretend it never did."
Kjellberg's audience has not abandoned him. The footage where he pretends to kill Hitler, or references the Hypofritz sign, are some of his most watched videos in the last few weeks, raking in millions of views. The optics of the situation work in his favour when you consider that the video from the Journal accompanying the original article took at least one clip out of context. At one point, the WSJ presented a Nazi reference that Kjellberg made without noting that he was actually asking his fanbase to stop making swastikas in his mobile game. Not all clips pinpointed by the media were miscategorised, of course, but the fact any were at all makes it easier for people to buy into the idea that the media is out to destroy Kjellberg, rather than doing the basic duty of reporting on influential figures that people care about. To his audience, Kjellberg can appear as a wronged party here — even the Fiverr freelancers are on his side:
All the same, posing the media as a boogieman makes for good video. On YouTube, some of the most common video formats involve rivalry. Sometimes, these clashes can be good-natured, and are played-up for pure entertainment: Kotaku alumnus Patrick Klepek had a series of videos where he played devilish Mario Maker levels created by Giant Bomb personality Dan Ryckert. Kjellberg himself has pretended to feud with a satirical YouTuber called "Dillon The Hacker", and more notably, the basis of Kjellberg's cancelled YouTube Red show was to present Jacksepticeye, another YouTuber, as the pseudo "villain". (They are friends.) Judging by the views on Kjellberg's videos, audiences appreciate rivalries, even when there are no stakes involved.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have actual quarrels and beefs unfolding between YouTubers, where emotions run high and feelings get hurt. Often, these spats are followed obsessively by "drama" channels, YouTube's version of TMZ. Due to their volatile nature, the "benefit" of these fights is a toss-up for the actual people involved, even if millions of viewers eat it up like popcorn.
But through the Wall Street Journal, and to a lesser degree Ben Fritz, Kjellberg has inadvertently found the perfect rivalry target. Unlike other YouTubers, the Wall Street Journal is not going to send out a response video every time Kjellberg pulls out a new shenanigan. The Wall Street Journal not going to subtweet the YouTube mega star, as an actual YouTuber might. For the most part, beyond a single article defending its reporting, the only thing the Wall Street Journal can be is this paradigm is the silent nemesis. The divide between old media and new media is stark here: Though people work at the Wall Street Journal, it, as an institution, is not humanised in the same way Kjellberg can be through a single vlog. Kjellberg can mess up by his own admission, but he will still be largely defended by a fandom who has appreciates Kjellberg's branding as "dude who could be your friend".
When I asked Kjellberg about his quarrel with the media, he disagreed that it was anything like his playful video beefs. This one, he said, came out of real feelings. "What happened with me and the media is obviously different than me vs Jacksepticeye, etc," he wrote. "I went strongly out as 'me vs the media' in my initial response video. Which looking back on now was a bit childish. I do think I've been misrepresented a lot over the years and many of my frustrations came out."
In the past, Kjellberg has alleged that the media, Kotaku included, only pays attention to his gaffes rather than his good deeds, such as charity work. (Not true.) With the recent blitz of negative coverage, Kjellberg feels that many outlets are painting him as a Nazi sympathiser/enabler, a characterisation that, in his mind, doesn't ring true. As far as Kjellberg is concerned, the media is so eager to paint him as the bad guy, they can get basic facts about him wrong. When that happens, Kjellberg plays it off for laughs on Twitter and on YouTube for an audience that is ready to denounce traditional media as a whole.
"Yes, it's frustrating to be misrepresented especially concerning serious issues, but it can also be fun to just joke about," Kjellberg said. "If there's a 'pewdiepie vs the media' now, the way I see it is just for laughs."
As for the members of the media that were part of this crossfire, when asked about the barrage of tweets against the Journal reporters, including Fritz, Kjellberg said, "Fans getting involved directly on my behalf is something I'm always against. It's byproduct of having an audience this scale. But taken from past experiences, I know they will move away soon as well."
For a good while, Kjellberg had one of Fritz's tweets featured on his on Twitter page, but he recently took it down. Hopefully, it's a sign that he, and maybe his fans, are ready to move on.