This month, a far-right nationalist from Australia murdered 50 people in a terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand. In a rambling manifesto littered with memes, the alleged shooter cited YouTuber Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, also known online as PewDiePie, as an influence, and referenced Spyro 3 — a videogame for children — as a force that taught the gunman ethno-nationalist views. PewDiePie is irrevocably connected to gamer culture himself, having amassed most of his 90 million subscribers from videos of him talking over footage of his video-gaming. These are important connections, but they need to be discussed without falling back into the old arguments about videogames and violence.
PewDiePie, the most-subscribed YouTuber ever and one of this generation’s most significant influencers, posted a tweet on March 14, disavowing the shooter and showing a vague solidarity with the victims, though he was back online that day doing his normal viral spiel, his follower count rising ever higher. More than 1 million Twitter users placated PewDiePie’s ego, assuring him he had nothing to do with the massacre and that he was remiss to have even spared a second of thought on it. Other prominent YouTubers have a long history of supporting PewDiePie too, embodied by Markiplier’s “You have nothing to do with it” tweet of support this month (a support he has offered in previous controversies too). Any suggestion that there might be a valid connection is immediately dismissed out of hand.
To understand what is really at play here, we need to think not about whether PewDiePie himself is to blame for the massacre in New Zealand, but about what ingredients combine to produce such horrific results. We know that PewDiePie was not directly responsible for the mass shooting, just as we know that games themselves do not cause violence or school shootings (as Donald Trump claimed, along with many ’80s parents). Nevertheless, there is a connection between gaming, far-right extremism and the “mainstream” influencers with whom their jokes and arguments intersect.
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This event should remind us of another of today’s popular influencers born out of YouTube: Jordan Peterson, who was, incidentally, speaking in New Zealand earlier this year. Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, has amassed a huge following in far-right and even neo-Nazi circles online because his views can easily be taken advantage of by those wishing to push a transphobic and misogynistic ideology. Such views can appear under the guise of serious philosophical academia, and Peterson’s status as accomplished academic is used to lend credibility and weight to opinions much more extreme than his own.
Like PewDiePie, Peterson consistently claims to have nothing to do with far-right ideas and even to actively disapprove them. However, the truth is a little more complicated. As James Smith has pointed out, when reading Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, a self-help text which endorses the idea of instinctual differences between men and women and fundamentally celebrates Western civilization over any other, “the generous reader must suppress the suspicion that one is overhearing a little dog whistle to people a few red pills ahead.” Red pill — a staple term used on boards like 4chan and 8chan that provide a key hub for extremist views — is a reference to The Matrix, meaning opting to have one’s eyes opened to the supposed “truth” of “alt-right” ideas. In other words, Peterson makes comments and arguments (such as those about women putting themselves at risk of assault by getting drunk, or by attacking the term “white privilege”) which may not explicitly support so-called men’s rights activist communities and supremacist racists, but which those individuals can collect — like gamers trawling a dungeon for “Easter eggs” (secret references hidden in games) — as nuggets of support for their more extreme views. Though not part of the Christchurch gunman’s manifesto, some bookshops in New Zealand have taken Peterson’s book off the shelves this week.
PewDiePie’s own dog-whistling is even less subtle. He infamously conducted a Nazi salute, endorsed a YouTube channel with much more overtly racist views, and tweeted that he had joined ISIS, while neo-Nazi media site The Daily Stormer calls itself “the world’s #1 PewDiePie fansite.” All the while, the YouTube star repeatedly disavows the connection, saying things like, “I [get] grouped in with these people somehow,” in precisely the same way as Peterson. Perhaps PewDiePie can be considered the Peterson of gamer culture.
As Branko Marcetic observes, what the tragedy in New Zealand seems to show us is “a vanishing line between the far right and ‘mainstream’ conservatism.” The reactions of people like Ben Shapiro, the former Breitbart editor and popular spokesman for young conservative movements in the US, show just how palatable extremist views have become to some of those in mainstream discourse (Shapiro continues to write for Newsweek). Needless to say, Shapiro is very popular on those chan boards which lobby behind racist and extremist right-wing views.
The same is true of PewDiePie, who can’t hide behind the “ironic” or “just joking” argument in an age when The Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin tells his fascist writers to actively use the appearance of irony and mimicry to spread extreme racist views. In fact, this so-imagined blurred line between supposed humor and serious fascism is far from an excuse. Instead, it should be seen as yet another connection between PewDiePie and the far-right online cultures that incubate such ideas and advocate the use of irony to spread them further. Indeed, this “ironic racist” attitude was part of the New Zealand terrorist’s manifesto. PewDiePie’s jokes, comments and symbolism — which anchor extremist views in the mainstream — seem to have formed a key ingredient in the cocktail that led to the tragic rupture of online extremism into the real world in Christchurch this month.
Far from being as innocent as they claim, these important “mainstream” interlocutors are evidently used to bolster ideas further down the political right than they might profess themselves to be. This fact — fairly obvious in itself — cuts against the general line in academic discussions of the link between technology and extremism. Most media and political theorists link the recent rise of extremism to the democratization of knowledge in participatory internet communities that have emerged since the early 2000s, and which result in the current prominence of chan boards and doxxing sites. The flattening out of knowledge in the current era allows “alternative facts” and pseudoscience — the support for extreme views — to appear on a level playing field with those more established arguments that prove such views both wrong and undesirable, or so the argument goes.
On the contrary, however, it seems that web forums and virtual spaces for disseminating alternative knowledge only go part of the way to explaining the emboldened far-right today. The validating figure of the mainstream advocate — whether that be via the academic clout of Peterson or the apparently universal humor of PewDiePie — provides an authorization for extremist views that seems to be a vital component of the situation from which such extremism emerges. Without their Easter eggs, these ideas might remain exclusively in the subcultural and less visible areas of online life. In this regard, YouTube itself (as the hook that links subcultural forum discourse to a wider culture) seems more important than is often acknowledged in the rise of far-right internet extremism.
The likes of Peterson and PewDiePie are clearly not to blame for violence in any causal way, but they should see their influence on extremism as a chance to reflect on what they have been saying and doing over the last few years rather than simply dismissing how their actions contribute to far-right violence. Neither they nor their platforms are solely to blame for extremist terrorism, but both are important parts of the cocktail.