WSJ or SJW? by SM Afnan Razzaque
On January 11, 2017, the online content creator known as Pewdiepie uploaded a video on his YouTube channel which featured the site known as Fiverr, starring online freelancers willing to perform various tasks for money. The video showed Felix Kjellberg, also known as Pewdiepie commissioning several of these individuals to perform a series of increasingly humorous, absurd and illogical tasks eventually climaxing in two Fiverr personalities unfurling a sign bearing the words “Death to all Jews.” This event, and matters surrounding it were hereafter dubbed colloquially as “the Fiverr controversy” and will be referred to as such for the purposes of this essay. This essay will attempt to illustrate that the content of the video in question was satirical, and that it served as a ritual for online culture, therefore proving that the independent news outlet known as the Wall Street Journal omitted context in their coverage of the Fiverr Controversy, thereby creating a biased, incomplete and ultimately misleading narrative against Mr Kjellberg. This essay will also attempt to provide the necessary context in regard to the Fiverr controversy to establish a cohesive narrative that does not distort reality as well as showing that the article in question is indicative of disdain by what some refer to as “the mainstream media” towards online culture.
The video in question which garnered so much controversy depicts a systematic progression of humor, with Felix commissioning online personalities on the site to perform the tasks which they advertised. The nature of tasks however, was ambiguous, giving Felix flexibility with his instructions. To a mathematician he requests a graph to be made after the fashion of the male phallus. To a girl advertising a fun time, he proposes that she drink bleach. Upon seeing two personalities known as the Funny Guys offering to read out customized messages while holding up a sign, he requests a particular message to be displayed, though the video cuts off before it is revealed in its entirety, leaving the viewer in a state of anticipation as to what it might contain. The video then fast forwards a few days, with Felix examining and commenting on those that acquiesced with his proposals. Both the mathematician and the girl refuse to comply with Felix’s requests, on the grounds that said requests were too absurd in nature. The video continues in this fashion, climaxing with the funny guys unfurling the sign bearing the words “Death to all Jews.” “Subscribe to Keemstar,” they say. Felix claps a hand to his mouth while simultaneously pushing his chair back. His eyes widen and begin to dart around. “I feel partially responsible, but just know I didn’t think they would actually do it,” he says. (Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video — YouTube)
The criticism of the Wall Street Journal stems from the fact that the video drew the praise of Neo-Nazi sites such as the Daily Stormer. The argument is that the video was “a joke gone too far.” The article never outright condemns Pewdiepie as an Anti-Semite though the video is equated to “darker forms of speech” and “jihadist propaganda.” Because the holocaust is undoubtedly a sensitive or controversial topic, the joke is viewed as legitimizing Nazi ideology and therefore inappropriate. To use a quote from the article itself “putting it out there normalizes it.” Furthermore, the article asserts the opinion that since the content of the video is inappropriate, sites such as YouTube are at risk for hosting said content as it makes them “vulnerable to criticism”. (Winkler et al.)
To understand the nature of the video in question, we must first understand satire. To put it simply, satirical content is that which is created to be intentionally misleading with the writer intending for the content to be interpreted as blatant mockery hiding a layer(s) of criticism underneath. This is not to say that simply anything can be satire, for legitimate hate speech does exist, and Ruben further expounds on this by stating that satire “cannot simply be mockery” as “some form of critique or call to action is required.” Criticism hiding under blatant mockery therefore seems to be indicative of a defining characteristic of satire. If someone produces content that for example, portrays the anti-vaxx position by highlighting aspects or behavior normally associated with said ideology in a way that could be considered unsavory by most, it can be argued that the content creator is de-legitimizing the aspects he is highlighting (and by extension, de-legitimizing the highlighted ideology) within his content via reductio ad absurdum, while legitimizing the contrary position (pro-vaxx). Such content would therefore be considered satire, as it successfully managed to critique a position. However, this form of critique can only be successful if the portrayal of the highlighted ideology is done is a way where the mockery is blatantly obvious. If this is not the case, then the reader will completely miss the fact that mockery was in fact, present within the content, and by extension will never understand the criticism that it was hiding (Rubin et al). Therefore, in order for something to be satire, not only does it have to have cues of absurdity and humor as well as having a social function, there must be some form of common consensus that agree that the content is actually satire. This again, is dependent on whether the mockery is picked up as mockery by the audience. (Rubin et al) Furthermore, satire must have some form of social integration, i.e, it must be relevant to the social lives of people. A study done by Hango in 2014 which measured the proficiency levels of the population of 24 countries by requiring them to associate text with information found that 49% of the population were at a level two or below, meaning that while they could properly summarize information, they were unable to critically evaluate the texts. Almost half of society is therefore susceptible to be mislead by satirical knowledge. Armed with this knowledge, we may now apply it to the Fiverr controversy to counter the four main arguments and stances made against Pewdiepie as shown in the article.
Argument: Pewdiepie’s video was not satire, it was merely an offensive joke.
Counter: (Rubin et al) proposes the SVM algorithm to detect satirical news, which has a 90% accuracy rate, where the algorithm looks for cues of humor, absurdity and grammar. Humor and absurdity therefore, are defining characteristics of satire. The video in question portrays a systematic progression of humor at the expense of having the freelancers perform a series of increasingly absurd and illogical tasks before eventually climaxing with the reveal of the sign. His use of background music to dramatize certain parts and cutting off parts of the video to build suspense indicates that the purpose of the video is first and foremost comedic, thus meeting the criteria for humor. To a mathematician, he requests a graph to be drawn in the shape of a phallus. To a Caucasian female, he requests that she drink bleach. Both refused to comply with Felix’s requests, deeming them to be too absurd. (Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video — YouTube) These two requests are evidently absurd, in particular the latter. Yet no mention of these cues of absurdity are made in the article by The Journal. Neither does the Journal mention the previous two requests that were evidently absurd, nor did they mention the instances of humor in the video. These cues indicate that the purpose, or the intent of the video is to serve as humorous commentary. Therefore, these cues also show that at the very least, the video contains aspects of a satirical nature.
Argument: Pewdiepie intentionally edited this video and uploaded it despite the offensive nature of the content. Because it does not criticize a position, and merely offends, it is not satire and is just an offensive joke.
Counter: As shown in the anti-vaxx/pro-vaxx example, satire can be successfully used to de-legitimize the highlighted point using reduction ad absurdum. However, with this example, the assumption being made is that the mockery will be picked up on, for if it is not, the critique of the anti-vaxx position will never be picked up on. Ethan Klein, popular Jewish YouTuber and host of the H3H3 Podcast had this to say regarding the Fiverr Controversy, “Another part of this commentary, and you’re making me explain a fucking joke (which is always obscene), is that he’s seeing what you can get people to do for 5$. It’s an interesting commentary. He found a guy who impersonates Jesus and got him to say, ‘Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong. Now that is fucking hilarious guys, okay? It’s a joooooke. (SIC) He’s not serious; there’s a big difference guys; context matters! As a Jewish person I’m not offended. And this is the problem with this manufactured outrage. People getting offended for people who are not offended. You don’t need to get outraged on my behalf, okay? Hitler standing on a pulpit screaming, ‘Let’s kill all the Jews,’ is not the same Pewdiepie doing a little goof on Fiverr. Context matters. Use your fucking brain, guys.” (h3h3Productions), before going on to explain about the “Fun and lifestyle” category within the site which hosted the freelancers. Given that freelancing is a viable way to make money, and that the advent of the Internet makes this more lucrative than ever before, Pwediepie’s video can be seen as a commentary on freelancing itself, serving as a reminder that a potential freelancer might receive across the course of his career, requests that are unsavory. Using humor and absurdity, Pewdiepie uses exaggerated requests to highlight this. (Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video — YouTube) This is most apparent in his request to the Caucasian female, where he tells her to drink bleach. Clearly, the request was never intended to be followed. Nor was she inclined to follow out this specific request. The intentionality behind the video can be gauged by discerning its purpose. By putting forth such a message to the Funny Guys, which is so obviously absurd that common sense of social norms compels one to think that there this no way this request will ever be accepted. This makes the subsequent reveal of the sign bearing the words “Death to All Jews” even more absurd than the request itself. The humor in this situation is derived from the absurdity of the fact that such an obviously absurd request was not only accepted by the Funny Guys but was also carried out with the same seriousness as (presumably) other requests which are not so absurd. This request was treated by the Funny Guys much the same as other requests with them showing no particular hesitation in complying with it, despite the obvious absurdity of it all. Following the upload of the video, Fiverr banned the Funny Guys from the site, and in a video response, the had this to say, “Extremely sorry for the mistake we have made in the video. Please forgive us. We really don’t know what the message means while making the video.” (I’M BANNED.. — YouTube) Pewdipie responded to this statement in a subsequent video, where he says, “Let’s get real, they know what ‘death to’ means. Regardless, you watch it and you can’t help but feeling (sic) sad for them. They clearly love Fiverr. They clearly wanna keep making videos and I don’t wannna ruin that and they apologized.” (I’M BANNED.. — YouTube) Thus, the critique in the original video is one that cautions potential freelancers to critically evaluate all incoming requests, and how failure to do so will make them the metaphorical “butt of the joke.” Therefore, Pewdiepie’s video meets the criteria for critique, which is another defining characteristic of satire.
Argument: Because Pewdiepie’s video is being taken at face value by Neo-Nazis, the video is a legitimate medium to spread hate and offensive by virtue of the effect the joke might have on its viewers.
Counter: As Hango asserts, 49% of the population, meaning almost half of society are not proficient enough to critically evaluate information. Given that satire is fundamentally complex, hiding its true message under layers of irony (Rubin et al) and that almost half of society would be unable to pull that criticism from the deep waters of irony (Hango), it goes to follow that the critique of the video in question would not be picked out by some, and that the mere depiction of the Nazi ideology would be enough to offend some even though this position is being mocked using absurdity. The content consumer is already disadvantaged in recognizing satire (Hango), so it is unsurprising that the satirical nature of the video would be construed as offensive. This was further reinforced by the Journal’s coverage. My question to the Journal would be why is this story story was framed in this specific way and according to these specific terms? The Journal could have presented this story as an example of how satire is often misconstrued, however they choose instead to write of satire as “offensive” without even considering the purpose of satirical pieces, and how they are used as a legitimate medium of critique. A content consumer that has watched the video without picking up on the satirical cues, or the message of the video, would exercise confirmation bias after reading the journal’s coverage, for it confirms what the consumer already thinks he knows, that the video was offensive and had no purpose other than being offensive. Since we have already established that satirical videos have a purpose and function apart from being mere offensive jokes, the Journal’s narrative does not conform to reality by virtue of being incomplete. The absence of these facts distort reality, and leads the reader to believe false information which, per classical definitions of the word, can be considered as “deception.” (Rubin et al) Some colloquially refer to this as “fake news”. Because Pewdiepie is an influential figure the YouTube community, with over 50milllion subscribers at the time, using the influence of such a figure to spread an ideology would be very effective and beneficial for those who have an ideology to spread. Regardless of whether Pewdiepie himself ascribes to this ideology or not, Neo Nazis benefit from the fact that satire is misunderstood, as a satirical video trying to delegitimize Nazism might be construed as reinforcing the ideology, and if the video is uploaded by an influential YouTuber, it might sway some to the other camp. The Journal’s coverage, which thought it does not call Pewdiepie an anti-Semite directly, nevertheless equates it to “jihadist propaganda” and “darker forms of speech.” (Winkler et al) A potential Neo-Nazi might see the video, misunderstand the fact that it is mocking the Nazi position, and would go on to read the Journal’s article which would confirm that the video was devoid of any criticism against the Nazi position, and could ultimately be swayed to sympathize more with Nazi ideology. In this regard, the Journal would be guilty of the very things that they are accusing Pewdiepie. For the purpose or the function of the article is to convince that Pewdiepie’s video is not satirical per the classical definitions of the word, but rather an offensive joke with no social function. This implies that either the Journal, which is comprised of professional journalists were either ignorant of the existence of satire, were aware of satire but was unable to evaluate the video in question as such despite the obvious cues or was willfully ignorant of the satirical nature of Pewdiepie’s video. The first two cases indicate gross incompetence, while the latter implies malice. A tweet by Ben Fritz, one of the Journalists involved in the writing of the article reads, “Just attended my first chanukah (SIC) party. Had no idea jews (SIC) were so adept at frying,” while a more recent tweet from 2017 states, “well obviously, I’m not counting jokes about black people. Those are just funny.” (“Journalist That Claimed PewDiePie Was Anti-Semitic Accused of Hypocrisy over Jokes about Nazis, Jewish and Black People”) Fritz either meant these tweets to be construed as satire, preying on the fact that the absurdity of the tweeted content is self-evident, or he meant for it to be interpreted literally. The former indicates that at least one of the persons involved in the article was experienced enough in the use of satire to identify it as he had (presumably) used satire himself. If the latter is true however, his tweet can indubitably be considered “a joke gone too far” and can be equated to “jihadist propaganda” and “hateful content.” (Winkler et al.) Both cases imply a degree of hypocrisy within at least Fritz himself, if not the Journal as a whole. It seems to me that organizations such as The Wall Street Journal, “eager to reach young audiences, make deals with talent who may push boundaries on what is acceptable within the company’s standards or basic social norms” (Winkler et al.)
Argument: Because Pewdiepie’s video is considered to be offensive by some, regardless of the Journal’s influence, it fails to meet the criteria for common consensus that determines a specific piece to be satire, therefore making it not satire.
Counter: Indeed, (Rubin et al) asserts that, in order for satire to be considered as such, there needs to be some “common consensus” that agrees that the piece was satirical. For, if the hoax (criticism via mockery) is never revealed to be as such, the main message of satire (criticism) will never be revealed despite the intentionality of the author. In this case, the author would have to add a disclaimer to his content that the piece is satirical, which undermines the entire point of satire in the beginning, which is the de-legitimization of a particular ideology via mockery. Common consensus therefore, has to agree that a satirical piece was successfully able to use mockery in a display of reduction ad absurdum to de-legitimize a particular position. In fact, Ruben states that, “the receptiveness of an audience to satire’s message depends upon a level of “common agreement” between the writer and the reader that the target is worthy of both disapproval and ridicule. This is one way that satire may miss its mark with some readers: they might recognize the satirist’s critique, but simply disagree with his or her position.” The target in this case, is not only freelancers who will do anything for money, but also Nazi ideology which is being mocked as an illegitimate position, worthy only to be treated as a joke. Since people are susceptible to be deceived by satire, it goes to follow that common consensus might determine Pewdiepie’s video to be a mere offensive joke instead of a satirical piece. However, not everyone is misled by satire, and “common consensus” also applies to the YouTube comment sections, other online creators as well as Pewdiepie’s fanbase. In a follow up video, Pewdiepie says, “The response of the video was initially really great. I knew people would be offended and I knew people wouldn’t like it but I also knew people would see the joke in it and would find it funny and honestly, the comments when the video came out were like ‘this is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just strawpicking (SIC) like it was generally…..people loved the video, they thought it was really funny, then people that I think that don’t watch my channel heard about it and they wanted to get triggered by it and so they come over to my channel.” (I’M BANNED.. — YouTube) YouTube user Lenny Locker writes in a comment, “I remember watching this when it first came out and I was wondering ‘This is so funny, let’s hope no one takes it the wrong way,’…… Let’s just say they did,” (Comment on- Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video — YouTube) showing that those who recognized the piece to be satire genuinely enjoyed the content and found it to be funny. Ben Smith, another commenter writes in response to the Journal article stating, “It was clearly done in a way that showed he did not promote the message being written, and those journalists knew that the headline ‘The largest Youtuber is an anti-Semite’ would bring millions of clicks on their articles.” (Comment on- Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video — YouTube) Following the publication of the article, the channel DramaAlert hosted by DJ Keemstar, the very same Keemstar that was mentioned by the Funny Guys had this to say, “This was a joke. The joke was, ‘Will people on Fiverr do and say crazy stuff for 5$?’ And also, I was the butt of the joke. Apparently, the Wall Street Journal reached out to Disney asking, you know…basically why Pewdiepie was part of their network with his Anti-Semitic jokes and Nazi imagery, and Disney dropped Pewdiepie. What is going on? Comedy and jokes are not real. They’re not real statements, they’re not political views. It’s not hatred in someone’s heart. They’re jokes! Comedy as far as I can remember was something outlandish and something crazy; something over-the-top to the point where it’s funny! It was never real!” (DramaAlert). Commenter It’s Sammi.Jo had this to say, “Pewdiepie proved in 10 seconds the ignorance of mainstream media and the internet in general. True inspiration,” (Comment on- Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video — YouTube) in response to the Journal’s criticism against the video. Even though these are only a handful of comments, given that Pewdiepie’s fanbase is in the millions, it goes to follow that enough of these comments and statements from audiences and content creators could be found out to constitute a demographic. Thus, emerges common consensus, which agrees that the video was satirical, and that it was not offensive because it was a joke. Pewdiepie’s video therefore does meet the criteria for common consensus.
(Boudana) asserts that, “Impartiality imposed itself as the norm of the journalistic profession at the turn of the 20th century.” The same article “denounces impartiality as a journalistic norm”, by stating that, “as neutrality is impossible and truth does not lie in the middle, accuracy is better served by fairness than by a delusive position of impartiality.” However, in the case of the Fiverr controversy, the truth lies in how the video was perceived by different people. While some claimed the piece to be satire (Position A), others failed to recognize it as such and assumed the piece to be literal (Position B). In this context, as the Journal was Pro-B while ignoring A to the extent that it valorized B, it was therefore guilty of positive partisanship, which is considered “the classical approach to bias.” (Boudana) The article is thus lacking both in balance and in fairness, making it both unfair and guilty of partisanship. (Boudana) also asserts that, “Outside their national community, rituals do not fulfill their function of legitimization of the social order anymore; they might on the contrary, be perceived, and rejected, as alien and disruptive.” Nevertheless, it is a journalist’s duty to look ‘underneath the underneath’ so that they may serve as windows to the world without distorting reality. The comments and statements highlighted previously do indicate a general feeling of anger in how news outlets such as the Journal decided to cover the story. Because the Journal omitted context, and because they rejected the values of online culture, their depiction of reality is perceived as distorted especially to the members of said culture who ascribe by those values. There does exist a certain amount of pleasure to be derived in being able to provoke someone, however to assume that offense is the main intention is not only erroneous and is indicative of bias given how complex people are and how complex satire is. For these people, the article published by the Journal is merely one out many, which due to the respective biases within them, serve only as incomplete narratives that seek to undermine their values and their culture. It is therefore unsurprising that the term “mainstream media” is being used as a slur to speak out against those outlets, which seek to undermine or criticize online culture by omitting facts and (presumably) misunderstanding aspects of online culture. Cenk Uygur, founder of The Young Turks and previous member of the Justice Democrats has this to say about the mainstream media, “So, the good part of this (referring to an article on the New York times which strawmans particular conservative news channels as being Right-wing), which mainstream media does do well a lot, especially the New York Times is this good investigative reporting.” (NY Times Makes BIG YouTube Error — YouTube) Indeed, the quality of investigative Journalism within the New York Times is self-evident and clear. However, as Ana Kasparian, one of the best left-leaning journalists says, “The mainstream media is not necessarily nice or complementary to independent media sources ad to independent media especially on YouTube.” (NY Times Makes BIG YouTube Error — YouTube) The “mainstream media” therefore is very much real, and to say that it does not exist is like saying that society does not exist; for even though it is not something we can see, it is something that we can feel in the disdain of it’s articles when talking about online culture, just like how we know that society exists because of the solidarity we feel towards our fellow humans. Given that the criticisms of the mainstream media outlets (such as the Journal) against online creators (such as Pewdiepie) are done (as in the Journal article) by omitting facts and strawmanning aspects of online culture, then perhaps the usage of term “the mainstream media” is not only justified in response to their disdain, but perhaps even necessary for vindication.
(80) Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video — YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ul2bgoJds84. Accessed 18 June 2019.
Winkler, Rolfe, et al. “Disney Severs Ties With YouTube Star PewDiePie After Anti-Semitic Posts.” Wall Street Journal, 14 Feb. 2017. www.wsj.com, https://www.wsj.com/articles/disney-severs-ties-with-youtube-star-pewdiepie-after-anti-semitic-posts-1487034533.
Rubin, Victoria, et al. “Fake News or Truth? Using Satirical Cues to Detect Potentially Misleading News.” Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Computational Approaches to Deception Detection, Association for Computational Linguistics, 2016, pp. 7–17. ACLWeb, doi:10.18653/v1/W16–0802.
Boudana, Sandrine. “Impartiality Is Not Fair: Toward an Alternative Approach to the Evaluation of Content Bias in News Stories.” Journalism, vol. 17, no. 5, July 2016, pp. 600–18. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/1464884915571295.
Boudana, Sandrine. “Shaming Rituals in the Age of Global Media: How DSK’s Perp Walk Generated Estrangement.” European Journal of Communication, vol. 29, no. 1, Feb. 2014, pp. 50–67. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0267323113509361.
Hango, Darcy. University Graduates with Lower Levels of Literacy and Numeracy Skills. p. 15.
h3h3Productions. Is PewDiePie a Racist? 2017. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLNSiFrS3n4&t=172s.
DramaAlert. Disney Drops PewDiePie over Anti-Semitic Jokes! #DramaAlert. 2017. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrpVS2SyjgA.
“Journalist That Claimed PewDiePie Was Anti-Semitic Accused of Hypocrisy over Jokes about Nazis, Jewish and Black People.” The Sun, 20 Feb. 2017, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2906249/pewdiepie-anti-semitic-scandal-journalist-targeted-by-angry-online-mob-over-hypocritical-tweet-about-jewish-people/.
Lenny Locker. Comment on “(80) Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video” YouTube, 19 February 2017
Ben Smith. Comment on “(80) Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video” YouTube, 19 February 2017
Sammi.Jo. Comment on “(80) Pewdiepie Fiverr Deleted Video — Reupload — Full Video” YouTube, 19 February 2017
I’M BANNED.. — YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61686cq6s7c. Accessed 10 Aug. 2019.
NY Times Makes BIG YouTube Error — YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0Gs-xFC-ic. Accessed 10 Aug. 2019.