- 31 May 19
When the Christchurch shooter invoked controversial YouTuber PewDiePie, it opened the door on the murky links between gaming culture and the far-right.
ON March 15 in New Zealand, a far-right extremist attacked two mosques with a range of firearms, killing 50 people and leaving over 25 wounded. This masacre was not an isolated event. Terrorism motivated by far-right rhetoric is on the rise. What's different about this attack is that the terrorist livestreamed the entire incident on Facebook, declaring "Subscribe to PewDiePie" before opening fire.
PewDiePie is 29-year-old Swede Felix Kjellberg, who runs the second most popular channel on YouTube, with over 90 million subscribers. His content largely consists of free-associative commentary over video game footage. He is infamous, however, for several controversies surrounding the Holocaust and for his use of racial slurs. This has led many to assume that he is in cahoots with the far-right, though it has never been conclusively proven.
Either way, PewDiePie is a fixture of capital "G" Gamer culture, a sort of online clique that not only play games, but cultivate an identity around them. Not just anyone can be a gamer, you have to play the right kind of game; crack the right kind of jokes; and invoke the right kind of nostalgia. Gamer culture is hyper-macho, performatively aggressive, and every single one of its self-styled leaders has had sex with your mother. Gamers operate under a sort of siege mentality. This attitude can be traced as far back as the anti-video game crusades of lawyer Jack Thompson in the '90s, but it became what it is today, with the advent of Gamergate in 2014.
Gamergate was a coordinated harassment campaign that claimed to be fighting for ethics in video game journalism. In practice, however, the movement almost solely focused on harassing and doxxing prominent women in the video game industry. Jared Holt, a journalist for online watchdog, Right Wing Watch, explains how this set the tone for gamer content on YouTube, turning it into a hub for reactionaries.
"YouTube," he explains, "served as the ground-zero for the 'Gamergate' saga, which left a newly politicised group of young people, who had been wired to oppose social justice advocacy. The far-right, by nature, opposed progressive initiatives that seek to advance social justice. They saw an opportunity to prey on this newly energised group and utilise them to advance their toxic political agenda."
Anyone who has spent time around young men knows that transgressive shock humour holds a special place in their hearts. PewDiePie shares this taste, and as such, has repeatedly come under fire for his pranks. The most infamous involved paying two Indian men to record footage of themselves holding a sign that proclaimed "Kill All Jews". Racism is common fodder for jokes, and the irony-drenched culture of Gamer circles mean that it is frequently dismissed as "Just a meme". Whenever PewDiePie receives widespread criticism over one of his pranks, Gamers dismiss it out of hand. It's just a joke! Why are you getting so worked up? This boundary-pushing has a cumulative effect. The community is exposed to a shocking joke, provoking a giddy reaction. Over time, it is normalised, becoming less and less shocking. If you want to provoke the same level of shock, you must push the boundaries further. This is a perfect environment for floating far-right ideology. An extremist can air toxic views; if they experience push back, they simply dismiss it as "just a joke".
"The far-right do everything they can to mainline their ideas within political discourse," says Holt. "It's a concept referred to as 'shifting the Overton Window'. This shift has inspired extremists to take use of the platform; they feel emboldened to demonstrate their views offline."
PewDiePie is a charismatic, energetic performer, and has a particular talent for fostering a sense of relatability with his subscribers. This, combined with past scrapes with the mainstream, means that he has become an icon of defiance in Gamer culture. Criticism of him sees his fans rallying to his defence.
The idea that video games are constantly under attack is a common one in Gamer communities. As such, there is a McCarthyite urge to decry any progressive decision in a game as a feminist plot. Everything from too many female characters to LGBT representation have whipped Gamers into an indignant rage. This paranoia is fertile soil for far-right propaganda:
"You're worried about social justice warriors working to undermine your favorite games? Wait til you hear about the cultural Marxists working to undermine the entire Western world!"
Indeed, the spirit of the ranting conservative of AM radio is alive and well also on the internet. The angry reactionary rant is the most dominant form of political discourse on YouTube. These figures are interested in reaching an audience as broad as PewDiePie's, and it seems that he is interested in courting them. Ben Shapiro is one such: vocally Islamophobic, he tweets that Arabs like "to blow stuff up and live in open sewage"; transphobic, he refuses to respect the identity of trans women he has spoken to; and racist, he posted a video on his website that portrayed Native Americans as savages who sorely needed the "civilising" influence of Europeans. PewDiePie seems to be a fan of Shapiro, collaborating with him on several occasions.
STYMIEING THE FLOWw
Shapiro's intellectual standing - or rather lack thereof - was spectacularly demonstrated during a recent appearance on BBC's Politics Live, where he was given a characteristically robust grilling by host Andrew Neil. Eventually, Shapiro stormed off in a huff, having farcically accused the decidedly right-wing Neil of being a "lefty". After the clip went Viral, Shapiro - in possibly the only accurate tweet he has ever sent - acknowledged that he had been "destroyed" by the veteran broadcaster.
Nonetheless, back in YouTube land, once exposed to Shapiro, viewers are inevitably served ever more extreme content by the site's toxic algorithms. This includes material from figures like Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, proponents of the "White Genocide/Great Replacement" conspiracy theory, cited in the manifestos of various far-right terrorists.
Ideological movement towards the right acts like a magnet towards neo-Nazi beliefs. This is referred to as taking the Red Pill. At this point, individuals often start frequenting extremist hubs, like 4chan's /pol board or 8chan. It is here that the most lurid terrorist calls to action appear. A huge number of terrorists who have committed mass shootings have received inspiration for their acts, or have announced their intentions to kill on these sites. If the route from provocative humour to far-right radicalisation sounds far-fetched, look at the Christchurch murderer himself. In his manifesto, he wrote, of how "edgy humour" and memes are useful for attracting a young audience, but they are only the beginning. The far-right starts by appealing to anger through black humour, but as time goes on, they get to the reality of their ideology.
On April 1 last, the moderators of r/Games on Reddit did something extraordinary. They locked the entire forum, which has a user base of 1.7 million, and posted a notice titled "Not April Fool's". They announced that, "Though certain memes (such as "gamers rise up") surrounding gaming are largely viewed as a humorous interpretation of a mindset, at the core of the humor is a set of very serious issues that affect all gaming enthusiasts. By rejecting minority and marginalised communities, we become more insular," they said. "Whether it's misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, racism or a host of other discriminatory practices, now is the time to stymie the flow of regressive ideas and prevent them from ever becoming the norm."
This funnel from Gamer to far-right radical isn't inevitable, with victims drawn inexorably down. It can be stopped. The moderators of r/Games know this, and they know the best way to stop the far-right from infiltrating the community is to vocally announce that racism of any form is not welcome. PewDiePie, meanwhile, is aware of the controversies that surround him, and he is aware of the fact that the Christchurch shooter invoked his name before committing mass murder. He must be aware that the eyes of the far-right are on him. He may feel that this isn't his fault, but burying his head in the sand isn't an option anymore. With ninety million followers comes a level of responsibility. For PewDiePie, it is no longer enough to be non-racist. If he cares about ridding his fanbase of far-right radicals, he must be loudly, and pointedly anti-racist.