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Why Did the Christchurch Shooter Name-Drop YouTube Phenom PewDiePie?

Livestreamming the attack, the Christchurch shooter uttered “subscribe to PewDiePie” before gunning down worshippers at a mosque

Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg's arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of "Ender's Game" at TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles on August 31st 2016

Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg said he was "sickened" when the killer mentioned him.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/REX/Shut

On Thursday evening, it was reported that at least one shooter opened fire on congregants in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing at least 49 people. As information on the attacks started to emerge, it became increasingly clear that the shooter or shooters were adherents of far-right extremist ideology, particularly after an 87-page manifesto surfaced articulating Islamophobic and white supremacist views.

Judging by the manifesto, which is littered with references to internet culture phenomena like Fortnite and Spyro the Dragon 3 and memes like Navy Seal Copypasta, many commentators speculated that those responsible for the shooting were, like many young people on the far right, ultra-literate on social media, or what many would refer to as “Extremely Online.” The fact that at least one of the shootings was livestreamed and uploaded to multiple platforms more rapidly than they could be taken down cements the impression that the massacre was “engineered for maximum virality,” Charlie Warzel, who covers internet culture, wrote in the New York Times.

Perhaps no detail is more reflective of that than the fact that one shooter name-dropped the YouTuber PewDiePie during the livestream; specifically, “subscribe to PewDiePie,” a reference to a meme about 29-year-old Swedish YouTube superstar PewDiePie, a.k.a. Felix Kjellberg.

Kjellberg almost immediately responded by tweeting, “I feel absolutely sickened having my name uttered by this person. My heart and thoughts go out to the victims, families and everyone affected by this tragedy.” But the reference to PewDiePie prompted some people who are less than Extremely Online to wonder why the shooter would bring up the YouTuber — and others to conclude that the shooter was, in fact, trolling us all.

Who is PewDiePie, and where does “subscribe to PewDiePie” come from?
Born Felix Kjellberg, PewDiePie is a 29-year-old Swedish YouTuber with almost 90 million subscribers. He is primarily known for his relatively innocuous meme and video game commentary videos, though he “has flirted with if not endorsed the alt-right neo-Nazi movement and antisemitism,” says Evan Balgord, the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. As recently as last December, he came under fire for endorsing YouTuber E;R, whose channel featured videos of unedited Adolf Hitler speeches and a gag poking fun at the death of Charlottesville protester Heather Heyer. As a result of the exposure from PewDiePie, E;R gained 15,000 subscribers, leading many to accuse PewDiePie of “flirting with alt-right culture and sending a dangerous message to his millions of followers, many of whom are teenagers,” as Vox’s Aja Romano put it.

For years, PewDiePie has had the most-subscribed channel on YouTube. That standing has been threatened, however, by the YouTube channel for T-Series, an Indian record label and film production house whose channel primarily features Bollywood movie trailers and music videos. As of this writing, T-Series currently has about 89,498,000 subscribers — less than PewDiePie, but only by a very small margin. (In fact, T-Series has unseated PewDiePie a handful of times for the honor of most-subscribed channel, albeit only temporarily.)

As a result of the rivalry, there’s a great deal of “tension” between both sides, says Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer for the Atlantic who covers YouTube culture. “Part of it is the fact that YouTube has become increasingly corporatized, and T-Series is this big corporate conglomerate,” prompting many YouTubers to rally on behalf of PewDiePie, who is largely viewed as an old-school YouTuber and self-made celebrity of sorts, says Lorenz.

But Lorenz says it’s also important to note that some of this antipathy toward the rise of T-Series is infused with good-old fashioned racism, “in the sense that PewDiePie is emblematic of American YouTube culture and T-Series is emblematic of this generation of Indian people.” “Subscribe to PewDiePie” initially arose as a kind of “rallying cry for PewDiePie fans who want to prescribe this American YouTube culture,” but what started as a slogan in the spirit of healthy (albeit kind of ridiculous) competition has since metamorphosed into something more frightening: PewDiePie supporters have hacked printers and Google Homes to promote the slogan, and as recently as last week, “Subscribe to PewDiePie” was found spray-painted on a World War II memorial at a Brooklyn park.  

PewDiePie hasn’t done much, if anything, to stop this. Last year, he posted a diss track, “bitch lasagna,” that referenced the feud with T-Series and was accused of using anti-Indian slurs, and although he has urged his fans not to “do anything illegal” that would reflect poorly on him, he has largely stoked the flames of the feud on social media:

Why did the mosque shooter reference PewDiePie?
In 2017, PewDiePie released a video featuring a sign that said “Death to all Jews”; in another from the same year, he said the n-word during a live stream. Then, last December, he came under fire for endorsing YouTuber E;R. Yet it would be a stretch to say that his content is directly catering to people with racist or white supremacist views, says Lorenz. “Most of his shit is extremely benign,” she says. “Most of it is meme reviews. It’s just that he’s speaking to this hyper-online group of people.”

Indeed, the fact that the shooters were “hyper-online” and that their manifesto contains a slew of ironic memes and in-jokes raises questions about just how seriously it should be taken. The manifesto’s references to Donald Trump and far-right politicians like Candace Owens, for instance, have been referred to as a way to detract attention from the horrors of anti-Muslim violence in favor of attracting media attention.

“In context seems likely that his references to Owens were calculated to spark division, and perhaps even violence, between the left and the right,” Robert Evans, a journalist who covers terrorism and the internet, wrote in a blog post shortly after the massacre. “Given the tone surrounding the Candace Owens passage, it seems clear that it was ‘bait,’ thrown out to attract attention on social media and sow further political division. The entire manifesto is dotted, liberally, with references to memes and Internet in-jokes that only the extremely online would get.”

Balgord also believes that the reference to the meme was purely ironic. “I think it’s intended as a joke, a wink to his specific subculture/audience, and something to mess with journalists,” he told Rolling Stone, referring to “subscribe to PewDiePie” as a “red herring… so that the subculture and 8chan audience can then mock them for not understanding the subculture.”

“The goal of the meme is to spread it as far as possible,” Lorenz adds. “The goal is to get it printed in as many places as possible and to get news readers to say it.. He’s playing at this inherent divide in pop culture” — essentially, between people who are Extremely Online and people who are not. 

This is not to say, however, that PewDiePie and some of his fans’ efforts to promote his channel aren’t problematic; nor is it to say that social media platforms are totally blameless, both in the events leading up to this tragedy and the aftermath. Facebook, for instance, reportedly failed to remove the livestream until 20 minutes after it posted, leaving ample time for people to capture the footage and share it on YouTube; Twitter was also heavily criticized for its autoplay feature, which allowed people to see the video in their feeds without actively looking for it. Both Facebook and YouTube have since been scrambling to wipe the content from their platforms and have issued statements accordingly. But the lack of regulatory systems in place on both platforms undeniably enabled people to see the footage regardless — which, of course, was precisely the shooter’s intention.

It’s also worth noting that many have argued, with respective to PewDiePie specifically, that his use of “ironic” anti-Semitic or racist humor in his videos may serve as a gateway for subscribers to start seeking out more overtly extremist content. Balgord believes this is unlikely: “PewDiePie rarely if ever flags my radar. I don’t follow him closely as a result,” he says. “It’s possible he’s an early stepping stone to radicalization for a segment of his audience, but he’s nowhere nearly as cited as a stepping stone to radicalization as an individual like [alt-right YouTuber and podcaster] Stefan Molyneux, for example.”

But it’s undeniably true that YouTube provides ample opportunity for people to access white supremacist content on its platform in the first place. “The problem isn’t PewDiePie, the problem is these hard-right fringe communities that are PewDiePie-adjacent,” Lorenz says. “The fact that when you watch PewDiePie videos, you’re maybe led to Ben Shapiro [a far-right commentator who has appeared in a PewDiePie video], and those lead to more and more extreme content. PewDiePie isn’t the problem. The system and the algorithm are the problem.”

Ultimately, it would be a mistake to focus too much on the memes and Extremely Online references dropped into the manifesto in trying to make sense of the horrific shootings, says Lorenz. It’s better to focus on the explosive growth of anti-Muslim hate speech, hate groups, and white supremacist messaging all over the internet, and the platforms who are arguably turning a blind eye to it. “They’ve scaled to unprecedented levels with almost no oversight, they have an extreme monopoly over the internet, people regulating them don’t understand them, and they don’t view themselves as having an ethical responsibility for the content that gets promoted on the platform,” she says. “But these people don’t find their beliefs in a vacuum.”

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