Disney has cut ties with YouTube sensation Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg after he incorporated anti-Semitic jokes and Nazi references into several of his videos. The move comes after a Wall Street Journal review found that nine of Kjellberg’s videos posted over the last six months featured imagery including swastikas, Nazi salutes, and shots of Hitler. Last month alone, the YouTube star showed a clip of a man dressed as Jesus Christ saying “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong,” and paid two Indian men to hold up a banner reading “Death to All Jews” via freelancing website Fiverr, but Kjellberg has argued that he is not serious in his use of the imagery.
The entertainment giant had a partnership with Kjellberg through Maker Studios, the video production division that it bought in 2014 for $675 million, and folded into its entertainment division last year. “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,” a Maker Studios spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, noting that Kjellberg had editorial independence as part of the deal.
Three videos were removed by Kjellberg after the review, including the January 11th upload that included the “Death to All Jews” banner. Google had pulled its own ads from the video days after it was posted, but did not withdraw advertising from any other videos. YouTube did not pull any of the nine videos in question — nor did it offer comment on the output of Kjellberg, who is one of the site’s biggest stars.
Kjellberg did not reply to The Wall Street Journal directly, but posted a message on his Tumblr page addressing the videos, and attempting to explain why he had paid the men to carry the sign. “I was trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online,” Kjellberg said. “I picked something that seemed absurd to me — that people on Fiverr would say anything for 5 dollars.”
“I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes,” Kjellberg wrote, saying that he makes videos tailored for his audience. “I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.” Kjellberg closed out the statement by taking a stance on “hate-based groups,” saying he “[doesn’t] support these people in any way.”
The YouTube star has repeatedly argued that the context his offensive jokes are told in is important. “It is 2017 now,” Kjellberg said in one of his now-removed January videos. “We’re going to have to start separating what is a joke, and what is actually problematic.” In another video, Kjellberg compares his offensive jokes with an imagined version of himself who actually does hold white supremacist views. “I think there’s a difference between a joke and actual like, fuck, death to all Jews,” he notes.
But Jonathan Vick of the Anti Defamation League, in responding to Kjellberg’s Tumblr post, argues that by even pretending to espouse these views, Kjellberg is doing damage. “Just putting it out there brings it more and more into the mainstream,” he told the WSJ. Indeed, neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer latched on to Kjellberg’s January videos, naming itself “the world’s #1 PewDiePie fansite” for a short time, and thanking the Swedish YouTuber for “making the masses comfortable with our ideas.”
Update February 14th, 9:21AM ET: YouTube has also severed ties with PewDiePie, canceling the release of his original series, Scare PewDiePie, and removing him from the Google Preferred advertising program.