Social Media Influencers: PewDiePie vs. The Wall Street Journal

Mehk Sethi, Assistant Editor

In the early 2000s when social media influencers first popped up, they were mostly kids making videos on their webcams. Now, almost 10 years later, social media is a full-time and extremely lucrative career. The freedom, lack of barrier to entry, and opportunity to earn passive income has made a career as a social media influencer so attractive that the industry has grown rapidly. Most notably though, the fame and level of recognition acquired by some social media influencers speaks volumes as to how much power they truly have. For example, in a survey conducted by Variety in March of 2014, it was found that among teens aged 13-17 in the United States, the five most recognizable, and six of the top ten, celebrities were YouTubers. Smosh, The Fine Bros, PewDiePie, KSI, and Ryan Higa were the five most recognizable with Shane Dawson coming in seventh.

This power has granted social media influencers many opportunities to cross over into other industries, including advertising, cinema, music, publishing, fashion, and politics. In fact, social media influencers have impacted the advertising industry so greatly that there have been new tax laws established to accommodate this new type of promotion, and industry guidelines on disclosures and disclaimers are being updated.

However, despite their fame and ability to dominate a variety of industries, social media influencers are still notably different from more traditional media celebrities. While traditional celebrities have demographics spanning all ages, social media influencers mainly target a young audience with access to the internet. This is evident at Morris Hills, where many young students follow social media influencers avidly. One such example is Nithi Kumar, who has been “following IISuperwomanII, a youtuber, since [she was] 12 and loves to watch IISuperwomanII progress as she develops herself in new avenues, such as makeup and novels.” On the other hand, Mr. Stead, industrial arts teacher, says he does not use social media or follow anyone on social media as he has still not found any use for it.

Social media influencers also build a loyal following through their personality and direct communication with their audiences via multiple social media platforms. On the other hand, online aggregate sites are more content-based and aim to spread to the largest audience possible instead of focusing on their branding. Because these sites have many writers, their articles are often contradictory and portray a less accountable stance of their viewpoint compared to social media influencers who single handedly control their online presence and are able to maintain a more consistent viewpoint.

Over the last few years, this divide between influencers, a new form of media, and the traditional media has become more visible and prevalent as many YouTubers have complained about the traditional media mocking them or only ever discussing them in terms of their earnings rather than bringing up all the creative content they produce and the charity work they do. This divide was again brought to the forefront of the internet in February when the Wall Street Journal published an article and a video, accusing the most watched and highest paid YouTuber, PewDiePie, of publishing anti-Semitic videos. These accusations caused PewDiePie’s network, Maker Studios, and YouTube Red to drop him and terminate his upcoming series. One video the Wall Street Journal referred to in their article showed PewDiePie paying two men on Fiverr, a website that allows one to request others to perform a certain task for five dollars, to hold up a sign reading an anti-Semitic statement. In his video, PewDiePie explains that his intention is to show the outrageous things people will do for just five dollars, making it clear that he does not agree with the statement on the sign. In other videos the Wall Street Journal took clips from, PewDiePie was dressed up as a dictator responsible for censorship and horrific propaganda in an effort to comedically criticize YouTube’s new policy of viewers flagging and reporting content they find offensive.

Clearly, these videos were taken out of context in the Journal article, something that not only PewDiePie, but also many other prominent YouTubers discussed on their channels. Additionally, they said that this was just an effort to get more clicks and more money by using PewDiePie, someone with 54 million subscribers, in the headlines rather than to advocate a legitimate social justice issue. Interestingly, however, these videos did not only discuss this as a character assassination for PewDiePie, but also as an example of old media once again trying to take down new media. These videos noted the rising popularity of social media influencers threatening old media, resulting in more traditional media trying to make a comeback by trying to destroy the reputation of the biggest YouTuber, furthering the divide between influencers and traditional media. In this case, the overwhelming majority of regular YouTube viewers sided with PewDiePie, who almost became the face of social media influencers, standing up for new media against the evil, old traditional media.

Overall, as this new form of media rises, social media influencers become iconized as proxies against whom people can align themselves with larger moral values and sometimes, even politics. This allows for a lot of power to be held by a few people who face almost no barriers to entry into the mainstream and forces the public to be more aware of the biased content they are consuming and more persistent in finding unbiased news.