Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie. Photo: Screenshot via YouTube
Last week, the Swedish YouTube star Felix Kjellberg, known to his fans as PewDiePie, uploaded an edition of “Pew News,” a regular series in which he riffs on recent world news events. And since Kjellberg’s world is YouTube, this generally means news about the events, fans, and stars of the video-sharing platform. He spent most of this video discussing the widely despised “YouTube Rewind” official year-end video and a hilarious meme in which people like Jordan Peterson and Logan Paul instruct their followers to subscribe to PewDiePie in order to maintain his position as the most-subscribed-to independent creator on YouTube. (A channel of Bollywood videos had been threatening his dominance.) At the end of Pew News videos, Kjellberg takes care to use this enormous platform — he has more than 75 million subscribers — to promote other, smaller YouTube creators. In this video, he shouted out a creator called “E;R,” who, Kjellberg said, “does great videos.”
As many people almost immediately pointed out, E;R’s “great videos” include, for example, “uninterrupted footage of an Adolf Hitler speech overlaid with anti-Semitic cartoons.” The video that Kjellberg said that he, in particular, “really enjoyed,” was intercut with footage of Charlottesville protester Heather Heyer’s murder last year — as a joking way of attempting to illustrate the arcane rules of the anime Death Note. “The truth about why this took so long is because I thought it was so funny to call Black L ‘Niglet’ throughout all my recordings.” E;R explained in the now-removed caption. (The slur doesn’t appear in the video, which E;R rerecorded for fear of YouTube censorship.) By Tuesday afternoon, Kjellberg had apologized for promoting the video, but the mini-drama didn’t seem to have mattered much for the subscribe-to-PewDiePie campaign: The day before, he’d surpassed YouTube Sports to become the third-most-subscribed-to channel across all of YouTube. (Only YouTube Gaming and YouTube Music are bigger.)
In general, PewDiePie’s frequent controversies seem to have no real effect on his popularity. In 2017, at a little over 50 million subscribers, he lost a lucrative partnership with Disney over a series of videos in which he paid Indian men on the gig website Fiverr — as a sort of black-humored social experiment — to record themselves holding signs saying things like “Death to All Jews”; later that year, he called an opponent a “fucking nigger” while livestreaming a video game. And yet, Kjellberg remains YouTube’s biggest star, to the tune of 75 million subscribers, 19 billion views, tens of millions of dollars, and the adoration of millions of adolescents worldwide. If you come from outside YouTube, where letting a single N-bomb slip can be enough to end your career permanently, this sequence of events is baffling: How can someone flirt so frequently and so explicitly with racist slurs and anti-Semitic jokes and thrive?
One quick and easy answer is “because YouTube lets him.” There are reasons YouTube doesn’t want to get deeply involved, both cynical (he’s a huge, engagement-driving star) and earnest (YouTube feels uncomfortable wielding its absolute power over its own platform so nakedly) — but it’s important to keep in mind that the company has both the practical and the formal power to remove Kjellberg from its site, or find other ways to punish or limit him, the way a movie studio or television network might distance themselves from an anti-Semitic movie star.
But Kjellberg’s continued popularity lies not just in YouTube’s hands-off attitude toward his content, but also in the culture created and cultivated by the nature of the platform — really, by the nature of any advertising-supported social-media platform.
PewDiePie, like other major YouTube stars, relies on the parasocial relationships he builds with his fans to maintain his status as an influencer. He feels less like a distant celebrity to be worshipped, the way a pop star might, and more like a close friend. His viewers see him daily; they know his habits and preferences; they even have something that approaches conversation — albeit entirely one-sided — in the rambling direct-to-camera monologues that characterize videos like Pew News. When their favorite YouTuber is accused of anti-Semitism, his millions of subscribers respond in much the same way friends of a movie star accused of anti-Semitism might: I know him; he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body!
This dynamic is exacerbated by an evolving sense of persecution on the part of YouTubers and their audiences. As the researcher Crystal Abidin wrote in an excellent explainer of the reaction to Kjellberg’s anti-Semitic joke sign videos, many YouTubers interpreted Wall Street Journal articles about Kjellberg not as neutral reporting but as a tactic in a “a struggle between Influencers and legacy media more generally.” And why shouldn’t they? By the logic of platform rewards systems — which value high-engagement figures — it makes sense to imagine that, as Abidin puts it, “legacy media is capitalizing on the digitally-native popularity of PewDiePie to reel in clicks on their articles,” or that “WSJ’s intention and incentive is primarily monetary rather than social justice.” If your frame of reference is YouTube, you might understand outrage over Kjellberg’s recommendation of E;R as a cynical attack on your close friend, undertaken to draft off of his success in a race for clicks. (That YouTubers, no matter how financially successful, often lack or decline the elaborate and cushioning managerial infrastructure of the established entertainment industry, and must deal with negative attention directly, only increases their sense of being under attack.) Stories about what Kjellberg has done become, to people in the world of YouTube, stories about what is being done to Kjellberg.
Such a persecution complex is a natural consequence of lives and businesses conducted on a contemporary megaplatform like YouTube. One of the core conditions of platform life is precarity: No matter how successful you are in the platform’s terms — no matter how many followers or how many views — you could at any moment find yourself on the wrong end of some algorithmic sorting process, left out of some recommendation system, or even removed entirely for reasons you weren’t made aware of and can’t understand. The business you built could be ruined; the life you’d enjoyed leading irrevocably changed. Platforms can be powerful democratizing tools, but the processes by which decisions are (or aren’t) made are on every level intentionally opaque. (For Google to reveal the “rules” of YouTube’s various discovery mechanisms in too much detail would be to give away the game, if not the entire business.) When your livelihood and emotional life exist at the whim of a distant and impersonal alien god prone to reshaping your world without warning, it’s hard not to feel victimized — a lesson illustrated during congressional hearings this past week when lawmakers more or less accused Google CEO Sundar Pichai of rigging the results of Google searches for their names.
Kjellberg, for his part, is seen as a standard-bearer for the oppressed YouTuber subject to the whims of YouTube’s corporate masters — a symbol of the ongoing tension between YouTube and the culture that it spawned. As YouTube attempts to grow beyond its devoted adolescent fan base and secure its reputation as a safe and friendly advertising vehicle for corporate clients, that fan base is beginning to feel abandoned, if not swept under the rug. What’s at stake, as far as these YouTubers are concerned, is more than just ensuring their favorite accounts retain their prominence — it’s the purpose, direction, and identity of YouTube. (There are some unfortunate resonances with the digital revanchism of 4chan and other longtime internet trolls, whose anger at the encroachment of meatspace norms into their wild online spaces helped drive their politics far to the right.)
For more than a year, anger has roiled YouTube’s various communities over shifting and unclear ad policies that prevent YouTubers from monetizing videos that might upset advertisers. This past week, YouTube’s official year-end video, traditionally a showcase for stars developed on the platform, featured Will Smith and John Oliver, but not Kjellberg or Logan Paul — the YouTube megastar who launched his 2018 by uploading video of himself finding a dead body in Japan’s “suicide forest.” (The Rewind video is now one of the two most-disliked on the website, a fact that Kjellberg covered with some glee in the very Pew News edition that got him in so much trouble.) Even the out-of-control “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme that got Jordan Peterson to recommend Kjellberg is a function of this tension — where Kjellberg himself stands in for the independent, fan-beloved creator reasserting territorial dominance over the encroachment of a corporate account like the Bollywood channel T-Series.
We’re all pretty familiar at this point with the psychological process by which a once-prominent class of people, subject to a confusing and unaccountable regulatory regime, choose to overlook or defend a pattern of bigoted behavior from a televisually charismatic figure promising to maintain imagined community identity. Kjellberg’s continued success, seen through this lens, is maybe less surprising. But I don’t think it makes it any less worrying. Not because he’s a “bad influence” or malign actor in particular — though he very well may be — but because his status as the standard-bearer of True YouTube gives his position in broader political debates an outsize weight. As Abidin writes, “millions of young followers for whom social media such as YouTube were primarily for entertainment value are now being seduced into joining camps and participating in global discursive debates in defence of/in opposition to Influencers” like Kjellberg; he, through fights over his behavior and his position within the YouTube space, is something like a gateway drug to bigger political battles over free speech, the role of media, and diversity. And if you start from the position that PewDiePie is great and his critics unfair (and possibly disingenuous), you may soon find yourself taking on some unfortunate new political positions — especially since, as the academic Becca Lewis extensively documented in a report for Data & Society earlier this year, the far right has developed a considerable influence network on YouTube poised to take advantage of exactly this dynamic. Until we find a way to change the culture of megaplatforms, that’s probably not going to go away. And neither will PewDiePie.Why YouTube’s Biggest Star Can’t Be Canceled
Judge Strikes Down Obamacare, but the GOP Should Hold Its Applause
By Ed Kilgore
Whether the decision holds up or not, Republicans won’t like what comes next.
Nations of the world, sans U.S., graduate to next phase of the Paris climate agreement
After two weeks of bruising negotiations, officials from almost 200 countries agreed Saturday on universal, transparent rules that will govern efforts to cut emissions and curb global warming. Fierce disagreements on two other climate issues were kicked down the road for a year to help bridge a chasm of opinions on the best solutions.
The deal agreed upon at U.N. climate talks in Poland enables countries to put into action the principles in the 2015 Paris climate accord.
But to the frustration of environmental activists and some countries who were urging more ambitious climate goals, negotiators delayed decisions on two key issues until next year in an effort to get a deal on them.
A touching story of a random friendship between an immigrant cat litter chemist and a basketball superstar
When Charles Barkley’s mother, Charcey Glenn, passed away in June 2015, Barkley’s hometown of Leeds, Alabama, came to the funeral to pay respects. But there was also an unexpected guest.
Barkley’s friends couldn’t quite place him. He wasn’t a basketball player, he wasn’t a sports figure, and he wasn’t from Barkley’s hometown. Here’s what I can tell you about him: He wore striped, red polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and got really excited about two-for-one deals. He was a commuter. He worked as a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa. In short, he was everyone’s suburban dad. More specifically, he was my dad.
“You know, it was obviously a very difficult time,” Barkley told me recently. “And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’ They’re, like, ‘How do you know him?’ I said, ‘It’s a long story.’ “
If Beto and Biden Got Together, Would the Age Gap Be a Problem?
By Ed Kilgore
30 years separate the former veep and the Texas phenom. That might not be a good thing for either of them.
the white house
How John Kelly Failed to Tame the West Wing
By Olivia Nuzzi
What Trump’s new chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is walking into.
New York City tenants are still paying for Trump family’s fraudulently acquired inheritance, two decades later
The president and his siblings have long since sold their father’s buildings and moved on with their inherited fortunes. But for tenants, the insidious effects of the scheme continue to this day.
The padded invoices have been baked into the base rent used to calculate the annual percentage increase approved by the city. The sum total of the rent overcharges cannot be calculated from available records. But as way to appreciate the scope of the impact, a onetime $10 increase in 1995 on all the 8,000 apartments involved would put the total overpaid by tenants at more than $33 million to date, an analysis of approved rent increases shows.
Mr. Leitner, a retired computer programmer, was not pleased to learn that his rent had been artificially inflated. Like other tenants interviewed by The Times, he wants that money back.
“If they passed on phony costs to tenants, they should lower our rents,” he said.
One last hustle before hitting the road
While Zinke remained defiant both in public and private this month — a week and-a-half ago, he boasted that he would continue to attack his critics — Trump had little personal affection for him. The president was annoyed by a few of Zinke’s actions, including a decision in January to exempt Florida from offshore drilling in an appearance with Gov. Rick Scott (R), which was not approved in advance by the White House, and a ruling to allow imports of elephant trophies. Zinke later reversed the elephant trophy decision, after Trump publicly intervened.
The secretary’s final public appearance was Thursday night at his Christmas party, which he told White House staffers he wanted to have before his dismissal. He invited lobbyists and conservative activists to his executive suite, where he posed for photos in front of a large stuffed polar bear wearing a Santa cap, according to an attendee.
Mounted animals on the wall were fitted with ornaments.
“He still has big time political ambitions,” said one Republican with close ties to Zinke, who asked for anonymity in order to speak frankly.
The presidency continues to do wonders for the Trump brand
There are currently investigations, to varying degrees, of the following:
* Trump Org. / Bedminster Club
* Trump campaign
* Trump transition team
* Trump inaugural committee
* Trump White House
* Trump Foundation—@kylegriffin1
Could have been a Senator if it weren’t for that meddling kid
Quite a turn for Zinke. He had been weighing challenging Tester in 2018, where he would have been the favorite. But Don Jr successfully lobbied he get Interior. Now he leaves Interior under ethical cloud and GOP lost Montana Senate race despite heavy Trump campaigning—@mkraju
Zinke’s likely replacement is a “swamp creature”
Unlike many in the nation’s capital, acknowledgement seems less important to [David Bernhardt, the second-in-command at the Department of the Interior,] than behind-the-scenes power. And the latter he has. As Zinke ticked off the accomplishments of his first year—fulfilling the president’s vision for “energy dominance,” selling off public lands, and taking on the Endangered Species Act—he might as well have been naming feathers in Bernhardt’s cap. This stout, unobtrusive, middle-aged man in square glasses has been one of the most effective officials in the Trump administration, and after 14 months on the job, he appears to be within striking distance of taking over the department that oversees a fifth of the nation’s landmass.
Smart and generally well-liked by his colleagues, Bernhardt is regarded, with grudging respect from environmentalists, as the “brains behind the agency.” …
Bernhardt is the perfect No. 2 to a highly visible No. 1. Zinke is the folksy charmer; Bernhardt is the strictly-business lawyer. Zinke is the relative outsider, an opportunist, and a politician; Interior watchdogs say Bernhardt is the ultimate DC swamp creature. Zinke is relatively new to Interior; Bernhardt, who spent eight years at the department earlier in his career, knows the ins and outs of its labyrinthine bureaucracy. And while Zinke has been mired in scandals[,] Bernhardt has been largely invisible. Much like Andrew Wheeler, the technocrat who succeeded Scott Pruitt after his rocky stint atop the Environmental Protection Agency, Bernhardt could seamlessly take command[.]
Investigating Zinke — a look back
CREW has determined that Zinke has faced 17 federal investigations into alleged misconduct — though he was cleared of three of his five alleged Hatch Act violations. The Washington Post estimates “at least 15” investigations. The honors are/were being done by the Office of Special Counsel, the Interior Department’s Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office, and soon, according to today’s reports, the Justice Department. (And the Democrat-controlled House Oversight Committee is on deck in January.) Here are a few, via CREW:
The Interior Department blocked a casino project proposed by the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes after Zinke met with MGM lobbyists. Documents later revealed that by doing so, Interior had rejected recommendations from federal experts. The Inspector General has opened an investigation. …
Zinke tweeted a picture of himself wearing socks with President Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan using his official Twitter account. OSC had previously instructed White House officials to avoid wearing or displaying the MAGA slogan while on duty. OSC confirmed that it had opened a case file into Zinke’s tweet. …
Following reports that the Interior Department would spend nearly $139,000 to replace three sets of doors, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) requested a briefing from the Interior Department on plans to replace the doors, as well as documentation of the purchase. It is unclear if this inquiry is still ongoing. …
The Inspector General found that Zinke violated Interior Department policies by having his wife travel with him in government vehicles. It also found that Zinke brought campaign contributors on an official boat tour and tried to sidestep department policies in order to have his wife’s trips covered by taxpayer funding.
The end of Zinke at Interior (because ethics) — and now we’ll see if he gets indicted
Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the Interior Department and a key figure in the president’s sweeping plan to reshape the nation’s environmental framework, will leave his post at the end of the year, President Trump said on Saturday. Mr. Zinke’s departure comes amid numerous ethics investigations into his business dealings, travel and policy decisions. …
Mr. Zinke is the latest Trump official to exit an administration beset by questions of ethical conflict. … [A] former Montana congressman and member of the Navy SEALs best known for riding an Irish sport horse through Washington on his first day in office, [Zinke] oversaw mineral extraction and conservation on roughly 500 million acres of public land. He had become the subject of several federal investigations, one of which his department’s top watchdog has referred to the Justice Department, a potential step toward a criminal investigation.
The inquiries include an examination of a real estate deal involving Mr. Zinke’s family and a development group backed by the Halliburton chairman David J. Lesar. Mr. Zinke stood to benefit from the deal, while Mr. Lesar’s oil services company stood to benefit from Mr. Zinke’s decisions on fossil fuel production.
life in pixels
Why YouTube’s Biggest Star Can’t Be Canceled
By Max Read
YouTube megastar PewDiePie keeps accidentally sharing anti-Semitic jokes — and keeps getting more popular. Why?
Informative thread about ruling striking down Obamacare
The Texas decision on the Affordable Care Act is out. The individual mandate is unconstitutional, the court rules, and the mandate can’t be severed from the rest of the Act.pic.twitter.com/vWgTU8Cdsq —@nicholas_bagley
University of Michigan law professor
Texas federal judge strikes down Obamacare
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth agreed with a coalition of Republican states led by Texas that he had to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act, the signature health-care overhaul by President Barack Obama, after Congress last year zeroed out a key provision – the tax penalty for not complying with the requirement to buy insurance. The decision is almost certain to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
Texas and an alliance of 19 states argued to the judge that they’ve been harmed by an increase in the number of people on state-supported insurance rolls. They claimed that when Congress repealed the tax penalty last year, it eliminated the U.S. Supreme Court’s rationale for finding the ACA constitutional in 2012.
Mulvaney didn’t go to the White House today to interview for the chief of staff job, per sources. He went to discuss the looming government shutdown. Walked out with a promotion.https://t.co/PxrkAdOtz2 —@kaitlancollins
CNN White House reporter
Even Old Folks Trended Democratic in 2018
By Ed Kilgore
The Democratic future depends on young and minority voters and college-educated women. But many seniors vote, and more of them are voting Democratic.
Johnson & Johnson stock takes huge dive after report reveals that it knew it had asbestos in its baby powder
Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) stock tumbled 10% on Friday — wiping out close to $40 billion of its market value — after a Reuters report said the company knew for decades that asbestos was in its baby powder.
The company has been grappling with lawsuits alleging some of its talcum powder products caused cancer. But the Reuters report cites documents and other evidence that indicate company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers knew about the problem and failed to disclose it to regulators or the public.
Biden advisers float picking Beto as VP
The discussions suggest Biden is aware that his age may be the biggest hurdle to launching another bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, especially in an era when many in the party yearn for a new generation of leadership. He would be the oldest person to ever be elected president.
Past and current advisers to Biden have held frequent conversations about options to alleviate concerns about age, including teaming him with a younger running mate. One option that has been floated, according to a source with knowledge of the talks, is outgoing Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who at 46 has become the subject of intense 2020 speculation after nearly beating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.
Major investigation finds a Johnson and Johnson cover-up
A Reuters examination of many of those documents, as well as deposition and trial testimony, shows that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.
The documents also depict successful efforts to influence U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc.
A small portion of the documents have been produced at trial and cited in media reports. Many were shielded from public view by court orders that allowed J&J to turn over thousands of documents it designated as confidential. Much of their contents is reported here for the first time12/14/2018
the national interest
the national interest
Why Donald Trump Keeps Giving Mick Mulvaney More Jobs
By Jonathan Chait
Trump can’t find a lot of willing candidates, so he settled for a guy who knows how to brief him using pictures.
Mulvaney will give up his other job to babysit Trump
Despite the acting title, Mulvaney will step down from his role as OMB director. Deputy OMB Director Russ Vaught will take over as acting OMB director, per a WH official—@JDiamond1
Ladies and gentlemen, your new (acting) White House chief of staff
I am pleased to announce that Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management & Budget, will be named Acting White House Chief of Staff, replacing General John Kelly, who has served our Country with distinction. Mick has done an outstanding job while in the Administration….—@realDonaldTrump 12/14/2018
Government Drifts Toward Xmas Shutdown After Trump Blows Up Talks
By Ed Kilgore
Trump’s Oval Office temper tantrum took everyone by surprise and left little time for negotiations on border wall funding.
Michigan GOP to voters: Screw you
LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Michigan governor signs GOP-backed bills to delay, scale back voter-approved minimum wage and paid sick leave measures.—@kylegriffin1
Michael Cohen Insists Trump Was Well Aware of His Criminal Behavior
By Ed Kilgore
Trump’s former fixer keeps strengthening the case for the president’s guilt — which isn’t hard, considering Giuliani’s incoherent defense.
A typically strange development in the George Papadopoulos saga
It is true. I will be running for Congress in 2020, and I will win. Stay tuned.—@GeorgePapa19
Mueller: Flynn was no FBI victim
JUST IN: Mueller team prosecutors respond to Flynn’s sentencing memo; assert that Flynn “chose to make false statements” to the FBI, and “the Court should reject the defendant’s attempt to minimize the seriousness of those false statements to the FBI.” -@Tom_Winter —@NBCNews