Cancel “Cancel Campaigns.”

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  • 08/21/2022

“Cancel culture” takes no prisoners. The threat of being socially ostracized over a misspoken word, an errant gesture, or an opinion no longer in vogue is one that looms over us all like the sword of Damocles—but one that sways erratically, killing its subject with a thousand cuts. No one is spared the burden of having to mind themselves at all times. If you forget, society will tell you that you’ve stepped out of line. The cuts are a constant reminder.

Under cover of the internet, media elites are able to represent themselves as a mob—in effect, turning the people’s power against them.

The idea of losing your job over a tweet used to be impossible for anyone to fathom. When Gawker “canceled” Justine Sacco for over an ill-conceived joke, it felt like a one-off exception. And yet in 2019, an event like Justine Sacco’s social termination is now a daily occurrence. Someone, somewhere, is getting canceled.

For some, “cancel culture” can be a kind of peasant rebellion. Media scholars like Lisa Nakamura call it a “cultural boycott.” As she explains, “[i]t’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to. People talk about the attention economy—when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood.”

There are times when this kind of grassroots cultural boycott is justified—for example, to hold predators like R. Kelly accountable. But for all the well-intended efforts there have been to out predators, cancel culture has faced a maelstrom of criticism for being confused, ineffective, and toxic—and rightly so. Cancellation has always been beholden to the rationality of mobs. As it’s become more prevalent online, pseudonymity and viral transmission has given cancel culture a different degree of ferociousness.

This is particularly the case when the “mob rationality” that under-girds cancellation isn’t rooted in a “mob” at all, but a tactically-deployed, decentralized attack from multiple fronts—one issued from a position of power.

Using social media, small groups of media elites are able to masquerade as an "organic" mob—in effect, turning the people’s power against them. And far from protecting us from abuse, “cancel campaigns” have become a strategy that these groups of left-wing journalists use to strangle independent content creators and destroy their livelihoods.

[caption id="attachment_180456" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Carlos Maza and Steven Crowder Carlos Maza and Steven Crowder[/caption]


A lot of influential media personalities have been "cancelled." Roseanne Barr’s sitcom, a favorite of President Trump and his supporters, was cancelled by ABC just hours after Barr mocked Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, tweeting that Jarrett was like the "muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby." Barr later claimed she didn’t know Jarrett was African-American; that was not enough to save her show.

Whereas “cancel culture” describes generally organic, grassroots social phenomena, “cancel campaigns” involve powerful influencers weaponizing public call-outs in the service of their agenda. Think of it as the difference between a wildfire and arson.

Comedian Shane Gillis was dropped from Saturday Night Live when a provocative skit in which he told blithely racist jokes circulated on Twitter. Journalist Meghan Murphy faced a Twitter ban for “challenging views supporting transgender individuals.” Murphy, who’s now suing Twitter, was impugned by the media as “anti-trans” after she “misgendered” trans activist Jessica Yaniv. She cited Yaniv as an example of transgender rights activism run amuck.

In some instances, ‘the cancelled’ have found new audiences: Louis C.K., for example, bounced back by changing the tenor of his comedy. Other figures were protected by their institutions and political affiliations. MSNBC host Joy Reid was forgiven for her homophobic blog content, and New York Times editor Sarah Jeong was similarly excused, despite her history of tweeting bigoted rhetoric.

But there’s a difference between “cancel campaigns” and “cancel culture” writ large. Whereas “cancel culture” describes generally organic, grassroots social phenomena, “cancel campaigns” involve powerful influencers weaponizing public call-outs in the service of their agenda. Think of it as the difference between a wildfire and arson. “Cancel culture” often has unpredictable results; cancel campaigns are strategic, calculated, and usually powered by the resources and reach of media elites.

What’s worse, the fear of the social and political fallout from “cancellation” has increased the power of left-wing journalists because social media platforms usually capitulate to the demands of the cancel “campaigners.”. Take the campaign against Steven Crowder, for instance. Vox Media's Carlos Maza—who routinely advocates for political violence against conservatives—launched a campaign to de-platform Crowder, compiling video footage of what Maza called Crowder’s “bullying” behavior. YouTube went back and forth on their policies, but the ultimate effect was a cascade of demonetization of right-wing content creators.

With this tactic in their arsenal, these journalists can bleed out their competition while portraying themselves as righteous.

As a result, the future looks bleak for independent content creators.

[caption id="attachment_180457" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg[/caption]


Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg is perhaps the most prominent target of any “cancel campaign.” Initially known for his reaction videos to scary video games, Kjellberg’s brand has evolved over the years. Crucially, as his audience got older, his content matured. Like any successful entertainer, the Swedish YouTuber tested—and continues to test—boundaries with his content.

To the post-GamerGate society, PewDiePie became the media’s de facto scapegoat for racism and sexism in the video game community.

One of the videos, made in January 2017, featured Fiverr, a content production platform for freelancers to offer their services. It’s a place for programmers to produce cheap lines of code, musicians to compose ditties for independent brands, and artists to paint portraits—for less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Naturally, YouTubers used the platform to pad out their videos with ready-made content while reaping the benefits from their monetized videos. It was, and remains one of the most pernicious examples of the gig economy.

PewDiePie jumped at the opportunity to criticize other creators for their exploitative behavior—by making the most ludicrous requests of the freelancers on Fiverr that he could think of. Not fully expecting his demands to be met, he asked an Indian creator, whose schtick was to perform a little song and dance and hold up a banner that said whatever words you requested (within reason), to write the words “death to all the Jews.” An insane, indecent request—surely they’d reject his five dollars.

To his surprise, the creator fulfilled PewDiePie’s request.

“I am sorry. I didn’t think they would actually do it,” says Kjellberg in the now-deleted video. He repeats himself: “I feel partially responsible—I didn’t think they would actually do it.”

“I don’t feel good. I don’t feel proud of this,” he continues. “I’m not anti-Semitic so don’t get the wrong idea. It was a funny meme. I didn’t think it would work.”

Like clockwork, the Wall Street Journal seized on the opportunity to try to cancel PewDiePie. A month following the video’s release, the publication ran a piece that highlighted every instance of problematic, “Nazi-adjacent” humor they could find on PewDiePie’s channel over a six month period. From an assortment of lengthy, 10 to 25-minute videos, the Journal found nine brief clips—enough for a four-minute video that portrayed the popular YouTuber as a cryptofascist. PewDiePie, the Journal argued, played video games as a gimmick, while subtly “red pilling” his audience into white supremacism. To the post-GamerGate society, PewDiePie became the media’s de facto scapegoat for racism and sexism in the video game community.

“I think it’s important to say something and I want to make one thing clear: I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes.”

Not content to simply run the piece and ask questions later, the trio of writers at the WSJ contacted the Disney-owned Maker Studios, which produced PewDiePie’s reality series “Scare PewDiePie.” After being presented with the video collage of “evidence” of PewDiePie’s supposed anti-Semitic views, Disney literally canceled PewDiePie, ending the series and firing everyone involved with the production. As the article, titled “Disney Severs Ties With YouTube Star PewDiePie After Anti-Semitic Posts” went viral, so too did corresponding news pieces detailing Kjellberg’s fall from grace.

It’s at this point that the cancel campaign began in earnest. Wired ran a piece by Emma Grey Ellis, titled “PewDiePie’s Fall Shows the Limits of ‘LOL JK’.” It presented the gamer as a “bona fide white-supremacist hero” and an “alt-right darling.” The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi asked: “PewDiePie thinks ‘Death to all Jews’ is a joke. Are you laughing yet?” The Vox-owned gaming vertical Polygon ran an entire series of articles condemning PewDiePie. Polygon editor Ben Kuchera associated the Swedish YouTuber with President Trump, stating: “PewDiePie and Trump aren’t hurting the press, but they desperately want to.” Some publications, like the Guardian, cited the Daily Stormer (a neo-Nazi website) and its supposed endorsement of PewDiePie as “our guy.” PewDiePie never courted white supremacists, but the association—which he had no control over—was cited as evidence of his popularity with neo-Nazis.

“I think it’s important to say something and I want to make one thing clear: I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes,” said Kjellberg in a statement following the write-ups. “Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.”

“As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way.”

Not one to give up, PewDiePie continues to create content on his channel, which has since doubled in subscribers, from 50 million to 100 million. The growth of his channel has, if anything, caused the cancel “campaigners” to become even more strident and aggressive.

[caption id="attachment_180469" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]PewDiePie Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg[/caption]

In December 2018, PewDiePie made a video featuring smaller creators—an effort to kick his success forward—one of whom had anti-Semitic content in his movie reviews. The YouTuber, “E;R” was just one of two dozen smaller creators PewDiePie chose to highlight, whom he failed to vet. It prompted Vox, The Verge, Newsweek, and HuffPost, among others, to brand Kjellberg’s recommendation as a “promotion” of Nazi propaganda.

For PewDiePie and independent content creators like him, left-wing journalists are trying to squash their competition with campaigns to cancel them out of existence—instead of fairly competing with them for their audience’s attention.

“Now apparently one of those 28 likes to have hidden and not-so-hidden Nazi references in his videos,” said Kjellberg in a response video. “You know, obviously if I noticed that, I wouldn’t have referenced him in the shout-out—not because I have a problem with Nazi references being offensive in themselves, but because I said publicly, a year and a half ago, that I was going to distance myself from Nazi jokes and that kind of stuff, because I want nothing to do with it, and I don’t really care about it.”

And when the Christchurch shooter, in the process of killing 51 innocents, told his viewers to “subscribe to PewDiePie,” the “cancel campaign” against Kjellberg gained further steam. In the days and weeks following the shooting, the media ascribed partial responsibility to Kjellberg—alongside Paul Joseph Watson and Alex Jones.

As I previously documented on Human Events, it was an effort to silence anti-establishment figures by embroiling them in the actions of extremists.

Months have passed, but PewDiePie is far from being in the clear. Despite his recent pivot towards Minecraft-related gaming content, and away from politics, Kjellberg is once again stoking the flames of controversy.

On September 11, 2019, PewDiePie pledged to donate $50,000 to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that once lobbied for him to be deplatformed following the scandal with the Wall Street Journal. The Swedish YouTuber explained that the donation was intended as an effort to distance himself from anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and the mass shooters who shouted him out.

But Kjellberg later rescinded his donation, at the behest of his fans who pointed out that the ADL had treated Kjellberg poorly in the past. His decision prompted a new round of attacks from members of the media, eager to label him an anti-Semite. This time, they attacked him for wearing a Vetements sweater by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, which is emblazoned with a Bolnisi cross. It was widely misidentified on Twitter—including by some journalists—as an “Iron Cross,” which led to the cancel campaigners yet again falsely claiming that Kjellberg supported white supremacy.

For PewDiePie and independent content creators like him, left-wing journalists are trying to squash their competition with campaigns to cancel them out of existence—instead of fairly competing with them for their audience’s attention.

[caption id="attachment_180455" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Not independent content creators: late night show hosts Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Jimmy Fallon Late night show hosts Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon, and Stephen Colbert[/caption]


A successful cancel campaign can force independent content creators into patron relationships with media conglomerates (who can protect creators from smear campaigns) or off the internet entirely. What does it mean if independent content creators are effectively disappeared?

First, it erodes the meaningful expression of diverse ideas. The attempts to cancel and deplatform content creators who raise their voices against the narrative tide leaves little room left for conversation, allowing only those who toe the line to deafen the opposition.

Second, this kind of gatekeeping behavior consolidates media power into the hands of a few. Already, the front page of YouTube is flooded with mediocre content from mainstream networks like NBC and CBS. Independent creators are being pushed to the margins, by either having their content hidden or demonetized.

The only way to ensure that the social media landscape is an even playing field for both independent creators and the establishment is to break up the monopolies and give the reins of power back to those made these platforms great in the first place—the people.