'I was pretty irresponsible': PewDiePie reflected on his controversies in his first taped media appearance in years

Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, has cultivated a massive YouTube following over the last decade.PewDiePie/YouTube
  • Felix Kjellberg, known as PewDiePie to his 104 million subscribers, has become YouTube's most popular — and arguably, most controversial — individual creator.
  • Over the course of the last decade, Kjellberg has repeatedly made sexist, racist, and anti-semitic jokes in his videos and on social media, oftentimes just to provoke a reaction.
  • In his first taped interview with the mainstream media in over two years, Kjellberg appeared on The New York Times' 'Rabbit Hole' podcast to reflect on his career and his missteps. A text version of the interview was published in October.
  • The YouTube megastar admitted that he had been "irresponsible" in creating "edgy" content and recognized that his massive influence came with "responsibility."
  • Kjellberg pushed back against being associated with the alt-right, adding that he identifies as "apolitical."

Felix Kjellberg, known by his following as PewDiePie, began his YouTube career by uploading gaming videos and reviews to the platform. Over a decade later, the 30-year-old has expanded his content to include a vlog series, comedy videos, music videos, and formatted shows. He's also established himself as YouTube's most popular individual creator, boasting 104 million subscribers. Earlier this month, Kjellberg even signed an exclusive videogame streaming deal with the platform. The YouTube megastar's immense visibility, however, has come with seemingly endless controversy.

Early on in his career, Kjellberg raised eyebrows with his unfiltered commentary and trolling in videos. He went on to make rape jokes for which he later apologized on Tumblr, to joke about joining ISIS (a stunt that got him briefly removed from Twitter), to call female gamers "stupid Twitch thots," to use racial slurs, and to post several videos featuring anti-semitic rhetoric and Nazi imagery.

In a recent episode of The New York Times' "Rabbit Hole" podcast — his first interview with the mainstream media in over two years — Kjellberg reflected on the evolution of his career, his "irresponsible" behavior, the repercussions of his massive influence, and his objections to with being associated with the alt-right. Advertisement

Looking back, the YouTube megastar says, he was careless when pushing the boundaries of content online.

A post shared by PewDiePie (@pewdiepie)

Kjellberg pointed to a shift in his approach to creating content, taking place in 2015 and 2016, when he began experimenting with "edgier" content than his typical gaming videos, hoping to move away from "kid humor."

"I think YouTube at the time was at a place where no one really knew where the limit was," he told New York Times reporter Kevin Roose. "It became a lot of channels just pushing it as far as possible."

In the throes of attempting to stand out, Kjellberg didn't focus on the potential for backlash, outrage, or harm.
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"I was pretty —what's the right word — irresponsible about it," he recalled. "I don't think I really looked at too much of the consequences."

Surrounded by die-hard fans, he didn't get much pushback. "I kinda wish I had gotten some," he told Roose, laughing. "When you're in this space where people understand that it's a joke, you're in this area where everyone is on the same page." Advertisement

Criticism — and consequences for his behavior – finally arrived after a 2017 Wall Street Journal article documented his history of offensive content.

The damning Wall Street Journal report found that nine of Kjellberg's videos between August 2016 and February 2017 included "anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery." One viral video featured two men holding a sign reading "Death to All Jews."

When he initially heard about the upcoming article, Kjellberg didn't think the piece would be "a big deal."

The fallout was, in fact, a big deal.Advertisement

In the wake of the article, both Disney and YouTube cut ties with Kjellberg. Disney-owned Maker Studios, the network affiliated with Kjellberg's content at the time, called the videos "inappropriate" and YouTube removed him from its preferred advertising program. Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer openly celebrated PewDiePie following the incident.

Social media backlash, he said, was swift and "extremely stressful."

"I go on Twitter, and there's, like, JK Rowling calling me a fascist, and I'm like, 'How is this happening? This is crazy,'" he recalled. Advertisement

In retrospect, Kjellberg acknowledges that he bears responsibility for the fallout.

"It wouldn't have happened if I didn't push it too far obviously," he said.

The criticism, however, only fueled his fandom. Advertisement

"People felt it was unjust, what happened. And they wanted to support the channel even more for that," he explained.

Kjellberg was forced to reckon with his influence after a 2019 tragedy.

Kjellberg's reach and influence came to a head when a 28-year-old Australian man live-streamed his murderous crusade in Christchurch, New Zealand, telling viewers to "subscribe to PewDiePie" — a tagline Kjellberg had previously encouraged as he sought the coveted number one ranking in YouTube subscribers — before opening fire in a mosque and killing 50 people. "I saw what had happened and just [got] this pit in my stomach," Kjellberg said of the attack. "It was just awful to hear about. That someone would go so far."Advertisement

Despite disagreeing with the criticism that his behavior was to blame for the attack, Kjellberg acknowledges that the incident brought into focus the potential that creators have to shape their audience's thinking — and how a massive following comes with responsibility.

When asked to describe what that responsibility is, exactly, the YouTube star said he didn't really know.

Despite accusations that he's affiliated with the alt-right, Kjellberg views himself as apolitical.

A post shared by PewDiePie (@pewdiepie)

Amid constant speculation that the video creator is looking to "red pill" his followers, Kjellberg denies any affiliation with alt-right movements. Advertisement

"I think the constant association with the alt-right, and politics in general, has been really frustrating because that whole world feels so far away from me," he said. "It's pretty common to just throw labels around."

While frustrated by claims that his content is politically motivated, Kjellberg understands where the speculation comes from.

"It's a lot more than I think I signed up for," he said. "But I don't want it to seem like I'm completely innocent either and I've just done nothing wrong and just been targeted. I don't think that's the case either, but it does feel pretty unfair."Advertisement

When asked to describe his politics, the YouTuber described himself as "apolitical" or "somewhere in between."

"I don't really feel passionate about politics," he said. "I wish maybe I was, but I'm not that invested."

Being cast as a potential figurehead for alt-right movements, he claims, is simply "conspiracy theory mumbo jumbo."Advertisement

"It's annoying as well," he said. "People are trying to have me as some sort of symbol that doesn't apply."

Read more: PewDiePie signed an exclusive video game streaming deal with YouTube in a major blow to TwitchAdvertisement

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