You know the violence has gotten pretty bad when a YouTuber feels it necessary to denounce his own subscription drive. In a video on Sunday, YouTube megastar PewDiePie made the surprising request that “I think it’s time to end the ‘subscribe to PewDiePie’ movement, or meme.” It was a belated response to the slogan being used by a mass murderer in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15—and to the phrase more generally having been adopted by the white supremacists and trolls found in online warrens like 8chan, where the shooter was a poster—but it should come as a relief to anyone who knows a young person who is a PewDiePie fan. Here, finally, is a place to start a conversation about how, sometimes, an “ironic” joke or a meme can sour into a calling card for a movement that non-ironically wants huge numbers of people to die for their religion or their race.
If only there were a clearer dividing line between racist scum whom we should shun forever and 13-year-olds who like lolz, this world would be an easier place to live in. But like me, you might have young relatives, children of friends, or friends of your children who grew up watching PewDiePie play video games and goof around. If you ask them, you’ll probably find that many of these youth don’t understand why everyone is so mad at poor PewDiePie. Then, if you let them, they’ll probably try to explain to you, earnestly, that all those instances of anti-Semitism on PewDiePie’s YouTube channel were misunderstood jokes. Unless you’re lucky, after they explain this they won’t want to hear anything more.
How did we get here? A Swedish gamer and entertainer known for his edgy humor and Let’s Play–style gaming videos, PewDiePie became the holder of the most-subscribed channel on YouTube in 2013, and he held that position until an Indian music channel called T-Series threatened to surpass his subscriber count last year. Although PewDiePie himself is more or less apolitical, those anti-Semitic jokes, and the backlash they engendered, earned him support and sympathy within the alt-right/white supremacist movement. PewDiePie, in return, has occasionally followed or recommended the content of some people from these communities. In that context, his drive to have people “subscribe to PewDiePie” in order to keep him at the top spot (thereby resisting a non-European, nonwhite challenge to his dominance) seems to have resonated deeply with racist online trolls, including one who vandalized a WWII memorial and another who became the shooter at Christchurch.
The nuances of how an apolitical but edgy-racism-tinged YouTuber has become a symbol for real racists he disavows is a hard thing to explain to his young fans. I’ve blundered into more than a few of these conversations, and the result is always a train wreck. Provocative online trolls, including members of the alt-right, have set a neat trap whereby anyone who criticizes racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic humor is a hysterical social justice warrior, which doesn’t leave a lot of room to help a young person understand the ways “just joking” is currently being used by deadly serious racists to deflect, to camouflage, and to recruit.
These people, whom PewDiePie dismissed in his video as a few deadbeats in an otherwise positive fan community, aren’t stanning the guy with the history of “ironic” anti-Semitism by accident. When you chum the water, it should come as no surprise when this attracts a pack of sharks. But although this is all perfectly clear to any adult who’s been paying attention, a young person who lacks a frame of reference may have trouble taking it in. This is especially so when online racists are waging a propaganda campaign to ensure these kids stay angry and alienated by anything that sounds even vaguely like something an SJW might say.
That’s why PewDiePie coming out against his own subscription slogan feels so huge. Not because PewDiePie’s hands are clean, but because his willingness to draw the line at being associated with mass murder means that there actually is a line. It’s not just joking when the guy who says “subscribe to PewDiePie” goes on to take 50 innocent lives. It’s no longer a funny game when this same murderer flashes the OK sign, thereby tricking gullible people into thinking that … the OK sign is something a white supremacist mass murderer might flash. Whatever their origins, these jokes are not just jokes, and these memes are more than just memes. Who is using them now, and why, matters much more than the motives of whoever originated them.
With his video, PewDiePie has finally acceded to the truth: Even if you personally disagree with murdering people for their race or religion, it is still possible that through your action or inaction you could give comfort and shelter to people who do. If this happens, then however innocent you feel yourself to be, you have a responsibility to act. This is no small thing. It is foundational to understanding how racism and hatred function in our world to know that it requires relatively little from us to grow strong and thrive—some silence here, laughing at a tasteless joke there, and before you know it your YouTube channel is the recruiting ground for would-be genocideers. If PewDiePie has accepted this, however late, however gracelessly and partially, it gives the rest of us a place to start when talking with his young fans.