YouTube’s top personality is rarely serious in his daily videos on that site, and that’s going to continue because he didn’t delete his channel today — or, at least, he didn’t delete the channel he’s known for.
Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg was never planning to delete his YouTube account, which now has more than 50 million subscribers. The Swedish creator, who is best known for inventing screaming with a European accent while playing games, made a tongue-in-cheek promise to delete his account earlier this week in an episode where he criticized Google’s video platform. He claimed he would pull the trigger once he reached 50 million subscribers. Today, PewDiePie posted a video where he showed himself deleting an account that he owned called “Jack septiceye2” — which is named after fellow YouTube personality (and European screamer) Jacksepticeye.
But in the process of pulling this prank, PewDiePie may have exposed one of the ways that “fake news” begins and why so many people don’t trust the media.
Jokes and fake news
“You know when you make a joke and it just blows up way bigger than you ever imagined,” PewDiePie said in the 100-second video. “This was covered by media everywhere — the fact that I said I was going to delete my channel.”
Of course, PewDiePie’s channel lives on. He didn’t delete one of the most valuable channels in the multibillion-dollar gaming-video market. This is what a lot of people were expecting. Some fans even explicitly predicted he would delete his joke account.
Pewdiepie won't delete his channel. If anything he will delete his old 2nd channel
— RealMattTV (@WTFGameplays101) December 9, 2016
But the bigger story here is that a lot of people who write about PewDiePie do not understand him. Kjellberg is easily the biggest person making media about games in the world, and yet, many of us working more traditional media roles have a difficult time covering him. Maybe he skews younger, or maybe it’s that his jokes never make us laugh, but we do not get him in the same way that most of his fans do.
That came to a head on Tuesday when sites like Independent and The Lad Bible suggested that PewDiePie is a white supremacist because of a bit where he joked that YouTube was conspiring against him because he is white. GamesBeat even mentioned that it was “most likely a poor joke” in our coverage of the star’s complaints about Google.
Independent’s headline reads “PewDiePie: YouTube could be ‘killin’ my channel because I’m white, so I’ll delete it.” This is not “fake news” in the way that some stories online are knowingly false and designed to generate clicks, but misleading headlines like these might be helping to create an environment where fake news can flourish.
This hurts the media more than PewDiePie
It was quite obvious that PewDiePie was joking about YouTube punishing him for his ethnicity if you watched the video, but for a lot of people, the headline was all the evidence they need. It was almost enough for me.
I was more prepared to believe the headlines that Kjellberg said something stupid and hurtful than I was prepared to sit through one of his videos to see for myself. After all, no one would publish that headline unless they were sure, right?
But some nagging doubt convinced me to check the video, and I’m glad I did. Those stories are unfair. They likely do not meet the requirements for a libel suit in the United States, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t done damage. But they are doing damage to the media. They continue to weaken the public’s trust in journalism, and that is a criticism that PewDiePie touched on himself in a followup about the false stories about his racism.
“If anything, I’ve realized that whatever I’ve learned about other people through media is clearly being skewed while I was growing up,” said PewDiePie. “Because I can see how they represent me in the media.”
This is a huge celebrity speaking directly to a loyal audience that includes millions of people, and he is saying that you can never trust the media. And that message is likely resonating with his fans. After all, most of them likely knew he was joking about racial discrimination and that he was joking about deleting his account. Those might seem like lame jokes, but they probably become a lot funnier when the media unquestionably reprints those assertions in headlines.
Why does this keep happening?
PewDiePie chalks up these sensationalist headlines to the media’s obsession with clicks. The reality is more complicated. Economics are a concern, but this is also about a clash between traditional guidelines for covering someone and a new, connected world of social media.
In general, the rules for covering a comment from someone is to avoid writing something that isn’t a fact. For example, that Independent headline isn’t libel because PewDiePie actually did say that YouTube could be killing his YouTube channel because he is white. That is a fact. It isn’t, I would argue, the truth. PewDiePie was making a joke to entertain his audience while making a larger (perhaps more boring, inside-baseball) point about his work. But he was speaking to his audience. They know when he is joking. He has ways of telegraphing it that are very obvious if you have watched almost any of his videos. When he’s making a big joke like this, he typically cuts to a slow, close-up panning shot. He might make the video black-and-white and adopt an affectation like he’s doing a voiceover for one of those ASPCA commercials about animal abuse. He has trained his viewers to recognize those signs.
That direct relationship with the audience is the problem for the media. In the past, celebrities spoke to their audiences primarily through journalists. Writers would build relationships with and an understanding of the actors, politicians, and sports stars that they covered. If someone makes a dark joke about racial discrimination, it’s likely that the journalist covering them would understand that humor and filter it down to the end reader.
Today, PewDiePie doesn’t have a relationship with any reporter. And why should he? His success is built specificially on speaking directly to his fans on a platform that enables that. It only becomes a problem for him when journalists who don’t understand him are in situations where they have to write about him. That, however, is not a problem with PewDiePie. It is a problem with the media.
We’ve also seen the other side of this gap between the media’s need to cover a story and it’s capacity to understand it. In the presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump exploited reporters by making claims on Twitter that plenty of news outlets then repeat. It’s continuing to happen now that he is due to take the office of president in January. You might have seen headlines like this one from The Hill: “Trump announces $50 billion investment by SoftBank.” The president-elect did announce that on Twitter. But that claim is dubious at best, and the truth is far more complicated.
And yet, that headline exists, and it’s enough evidence for most people that Trump is bringing jobs and investment to the United States. The difference between Trump and PewDiePie is likely intent. The president-elect seems to want to deceive his fans and everyone else. PewDiePie wants to wink and joke with his audience and only deceive the dim-witted media.
The end result of both is that people are losing faith in the validity of headlines. And in both cases, it’s the media’s responsibility to figure out a solution. I get that a lot of people don’t get down with PewDiePie’s humor, but that’s not an excuse for irresponsible reporting. Whether that’s “Trump announces $50B investment by SoftBank” or “PewDiePie is a racist?” — or even “YouTube star PewDiePie set to delete YouTube account.” All of those are contributing to a general mistrust of the media, and they should because all of them are wrong.