YouTube’s most subscribed-to creator Felix Kjellberg, better known by his handle “PewDiePie”, has spent the better half of the last decade campaigning to be the platform’s most popular channel. Creating a pseudo-beef with the second most popular Youtube account, T-Series (an Indian channel dedicated to mostly music and Bollywood clips), PewDiePie encouraged his followers to tell everyone they knew to “subscribe to PewDiePie”.
This particular campaign phrase became its own meme, eventually becoming a slogan, dog-whistle, and symbol of his infamously alt-right following. The “movement” inspired marches, fly-by flags, and Times Square billboards all encouraging other people to follow this call-to-action. “Subscribe to PewDiePie” became not just a symbol of PewDiePie’s followers, but a semi-ironic rallying cry to signify the entirety of the alt-right.
But on Sunday night, PewDiePie uploaded a short, uncharacteristically serious video appealing to his fans to stop using the meme that he himself created. (At the time of writing, the video entitled “Ending the Subscribe to Pewdiepie Meme” has over 13 million views and is the number three trending video on the whole of YouTube).
“Something I learned and something and hopefully something people can understand is that when you have 90 million people riled up about something, you’re bound to get a few degenerates,” he explains. “But then something happened that I don’t think anyone would have predicted.”
He then goes onto talk about how the Christchurch shooter infamously spoke PewDiePie’s self-promoting catchphrase at the start of his video documenting the two horrific attacks he went on to carry out. He talks about how he addressed it and “disavowed” the shooter’s praise on Twitter and then claims that, out of respect for the families of the victims of the attacks, he has decided it would be best not to address it ever again. But now, he says, he realises that he should have encouraged the “subscribe to PewDiePie” movement to end then, rather than wait the six weeks it’s now been since the attack to say anything more about it.
Few would argue that PewDiePie shouldn’t have made this video. In fact, many of his fans and even his sceptics will say that this video is a moment of sincere self-awareness from the YouTuber, and a respectable decision. But while the video may not be a bad idea in its entirety, it is yet another emblem of the tone deaf, self-awareness-bereft nature of the way the alt-right has tried to disown what caused the Christchurch attack.
The irony-laden manifesto of the shooter was not the first example of internet-driven language influencing the person carrying out an attack – the alt-right has cultivated the rhetoric deployed by terrorists such as Elliot Rodger, Anders Brevik, and Alek Minnassian. And PewDiePie’s video is not the first time that the alt-right has tried to wash its hands of the ideas they have sown, deploying the line “I didn’t mean for this to happen, it’s not what I thought would be done”. PewDiePie himself even admits in his video that the meme has been used before in hateful contexts, when “sub to PewDiePie” was spray-painted on the side of a World War II memorial. And yes, sure, while none of these past attackers explicitly said “subscribe to PewDiePie” in relation to their attacks, they blew the same dog-whistle, writing or saying something to indicate “I am cut from the same alt-right cloth and I agree with the ideas I’ve seen online”.
So it’s very easy to say that the monster you created wasn’t supposed to be a monster, and ask it to stop for the sake of you, its creator. But what happens when the monster says, “Actually, fuck you – you made me what I am and I like being what I’ve become?”
But this is where the tiniest, most infinitesimal silver lining comes into view. Many of PewDiePie’s fans will listen to his pleading and stop using the meme because of the connotations it has come to have. But some of his fans, and the people who run in alt-right spaces which use the “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme, will not. And this means that no amount of begging will ever stop PewDiePie’s name from being synonymous with white supremacist, terrorist, and alt-right spaces that are known for the race-hate attacks they carry out. No amount of insistence will keep PewDiePie from becoming one with the monster he made.
You can rest assured that, in the final moments of his video, PewDiePie does try to remind his viewers what really, truly matters. “I don’t want hitting 100 million subscribers to be about beating another channel,” the man who made his name out of a meme about beating another channel, says, as though any of this is about beating another channel. “I think what we’ve accomplished is so much more than that.”
“I just want to say that I feel incredibly lucky that I have such an amazing group of people supporting me.”