YouTuber Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg has withdrawn a $50,000 pledge to an anti-hate group, which he had dedicated as a means of atoning for past accusations of racism and antisemitism, after backlash from his fans.
The Swedish vlogger had promised funds received from a sponsorship deal to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a not-for-profit organization that fights antisemitism. But he apologized to fans, who had been developing conspiracy theories that he had been pressured to make the donation, in a video uploaded on Thursday.
“I made the mistake of picking a charity that I was advised to instead of picking a charity that I’m personally passionate about,” Kjellberg said in the video. “Which is 100% my fault.”
Kjellberg, whose channel surpassed 100 million subscribers in August, has attracted controversy in the past for posting antisemitic jokes and videos and Nazi imagery. In 2017, Disney dropped PewDiePie as a sponsor after a report found he had posted nine videos involving offensive rhetoric, including one in which he paid two men to hold up a sign that read “Death to all Jews”.
He has also been embraced by far-right extremists, including the Christchurch shooter, a gunman in New Zealand who killed 51 people in a mosque while livestreaming and calling on viewers to “subscribe to PewDiePie”.
Kjellberg removed some of his videos following the Christchurch shooting, saying in a statement he recognized some of his jokes were “ultimately offensive” and he felt “absolutely sickened” that the alleged gunman had mentioned him. The donation dedicated to the ADL was seen as his latest effort to distance himself from far-right hate speech, but his fans were not happy.
“All that this particular incident shows is that at least some of his followers have antisemitic leanings and they were loud enough to get him to change course on what seemed like a PR opportunity to smooth over some of his incidents from the past,” said Matt Rivitz, of the social media activism organization Sleeping Giants.
The controversies surrounding Kjellberg underscore problems YouTube faces with extremism on the platform, Rivitz said. The company came under fire in June for failing to remove the vlogger Steven Crowder from the platform after years of anti-gay abuse directed at the video journalist Carlos Maza. Meanwhile, a group of LGBTQ YouTubers are suing YouTube’s parent company for allegedly censoring their content and incentivizing volatile behavior.
“YouTube has an extremism problem regardless of this particular incident,” Rivitz said. “They have proven time and time again that they care more about engagement and ad rates than responsibility, which is why advertisers have such difficulty with them.”
YouTube did not respond to request for comment. The ADL said it had not heard from Kjellberg directly regarding the donation.
“ADL learned about the potential donation from Felix Kjellberg when everyone else did: when he made the announcement on his channel earlier this week,” it said in a statement. “We have not received any communication from him beyond that.”