Please Post Responsibly: The Ethical Responsibilities of Internet Influencers

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Felix Kjellberg, aka Pewdiepie. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this week, news broke that Disney’s digital influencer agency, Maker Studios, broke with perhaps the biggest Internet influencer on their roster. Felix Kjellberg, better known by his handle, Pewdiepie, current sits at approximately 53.3 million subscribers on YouTube. Excluding the compilation channels YouTube runs for Music, Sports, and Gaming, this number makes him the top most subscribed-to channel on the website. So, in terms of business, it makes sense that the entertainment giant would recruit YouTube’s top star. Until this week, when it didn’t.

Disney made the decision to cut ties with Kjellberg in response to questions posed to the company by Wall Street Journal writers for an article outlining instances of anti-Semitism in some of the 27-year-old Swede’s videos. In a statement released to Time Magazine, Disney acknowledged that Kjellberg had derived his following “by being provocative and irreverent” but this time, “he clearly went too far” and that the “videos are inappropriate.” Later that same day, Google canceled plans for a second season of the influencer’s YouTube Red reality program, “Scare PewdiePie,” in response to the same article and removed his channel from the Google Preferred, the company’s premium advertising program.

In a statement posted on his Tumblr blog, Kjellberg apologized for the offensive nature regarding the most recent of the videos in question. He echoed the sentiment in a video on his YouTube channel just today, before quickly turning the blame on the media, specifically the WSJ, for attacking him by taking things out of context.

Whether or not you believe this claim, there is no question that the main source Kjellberg needs to blame is himself. No one else has control over the content he produces. He put these messages out there, and people have noticed. He must now deal with the backlash.
It is not known if Kjellberg intended to become a role model when he started his channel in 2010, but nevertheless, he is one to many. Therefore, as a media/entertainment professional, it can be argued that he has an ethical responsibility to at least attempt to steer his following in the right moral direction regarding issues of race, gender, religion and the many other social issues that exist in our world. By promoting hate, regardless of its status as a joke or not, Kjellberg is telling 53 million people that it is okay to act this way and, statistically, there is a certainty some of them will believe him.

For celebrities like Kjellberg, those in the group who have derived their fame from the Internet, the lack of ethical responsibility is not a rare issue. This may be the first time that you have heard of it, but it certainly isn’t the first time it’s happened. In 2014, British YouTuber Sam Pepper came under fire for posting a video “prank” featuring him pitching women’s butts with a fake hand. Critics said the video promoted sexual assault and in the weeks that followed, women came forward with evidence of harassment at the hands of Pepper. Although Pepper later disclosed that his butt-pinch videos were scripted, the scandal led to a quick fall from grace. Yet, he still had his defenders. Those who argued that the video was just a joke and that those who take it seriously as idiots.

And there we have the problem. Pepper, in his influence, has either convinced or in some cases emboldened, a group of his viewers to believe that sexual assault on women is somewhat okay if committed in jest. And as anyone in the right mind knows, that is NOT the case.

Maybe the quick ascent to fame experienced by many Internet influencers has left them unprepared for the responsibilities of such stardom. Maybe their age (many influencers tend to be in their twenties, and some are even still in their teens) has prevented them from developing an understanding of the power they now have. Whatever the case, the fact is that they are reaching a huge audience, the majority of which is compromised of impressionable young people who are still in the process of creating their moral compasses. The influencers must be aware of this and make their content with this in mind.

So my message to all the Internet stars, and wannabe stars, out there is this: There will always be hateful people out there. Internet trolls are not going away. It is part of your job, what you are being paid to do, not to promote this behavior. Create you videos with tolerance and compassion in mind and use them to spread messages of love and understanding. This is a responsibility that comes with your fame and if you are unwilling to accept that, please do us, and the world, all a favor and delete your account.

Harsh, I know, but this isn’t the time to sugarcoat.