Context Matters – What happens when a prank goes too far

Well if ever we needed a more timely reminder of mainstream media bias and the complete failure of identity politics, one needs only look at today’s media reporting of Lily Allen’s latest Twitter debacle, and compare it to the reporting of YouTube star PewDie Pie’s ill-judged stunt.

For those who don’t know who one or both of these people are (guessing most know Lily Allen but maybe not PewDie Pie) or what each of them did to get themselves into the media spotlight, a brief summary:

PewDie Pie is a YouTube sensation, a young Swedish gamer, video commentator and comedian whose real name is Felix Kjellberg. He was, until recently, YouTube’s highest-paid star, with millions of subscribers worldwide and endorsements from Disney among others.

Lily Allen, on the other hand, is a singer, songwriter, actress and television producer who initially rose to fame via a number-one single, Smile, followed by a couple of fairly decent albums. In recent years, though, she has become better known both for collapsing under the influence of drink or drugs at events such as Glastonbury and the Notting Hill Carnival, or for turning up at refugee camps and apologising on behalf of the British people for the fact that she believes we are not doing enough to help them, and wading into discussions on subjects she doesn’t really understand, such as that of Asian grooming gangs, and trying to equate them with her own experiences of being groped by white men.  She regularly gets into spats on Twitter with ill-judged tweets about her views on politics and social justice.

Now, I have to admit I’d never heard of PewDie Pie until he hit the headlines so spectacularly just over a week ago, when the Wall Street Journal conducted an investigation into a number of his videos and published an account of a number of instances of anti-semitic content, most notably a recent video in which he used the website Fiverr to ask two young men in India to hold up a banner reading ‘Death to all Jews’.

A bit of further explanation here – the website Fiverr takes its name from the fact that it allows individuals all over the world to advertise any number of freelance services, typically for around £5. So, for example, somebody might offer to perform minor translation services, copywriting services, essay writing, research, you name it. And some of them will offer to do completely random things – anything you ask them to do. It really is truly incredible what the internet has spawned.

Now PewDie Pie was looking through this website and came across these two lads in India who were offering to write anything the customer wanted written, on a big sign, and hold it up for a camera, and he thought it would be funny to ask them to write ‘Death to all Jews’ – assuming they would refuse.

Sadly, they did exactly as asked, and his video shows them happily holding up a massive banner proclaiming ‘Death to all Jews’ while laughing hilariously.  PewDie Pie himself looked fairly horrified that they had actually done what he asked them to do, but still chose to post the video for his massive audience to watch.

PewDie Pie Death to all Jews

Going back to Lily Allen – yesterday, she created a Twitter poll asking 15-35 year-olds to vote on whether they felt more marginalised by muslims or by pensioners. When a number of users expressed outrage at the question, asking why she hates pensioners so much, she responded that she doesn’t hate all pensioners, just the extremist ones.

lily allen tweet extremist pensioners

She followed up by tweeting that extremist pensioners are taking over the country, that she can’t get an appointment with the doctor because pensioners take all the appointments and that they don’t contribute to society as they are not paying taxes and are just living off their pensions.

Now, in PewDie Pie’s case, absolute outrage ensued as a result of the Wall Street Journal’s investigation, with the story being picked up and reported by the large majority of mainstream media outlets. Disney cancelled his contract and YouTube removed his channel from its preferred-advertising programme, essentially ensuring he will receive significantly less advertising revenue in future. Journalists took great delight in charting his downfall in comment pieces likening him to a naïve rock star whose fame had got the better of him.

Lily Allen, similarly, received an absolutely enormous amount of scorn and vitriol in response to her Twitter poll. Eventually, in the way of Twitter storms, some of the responses turned particularly nasty with people accusing her of needing psychiatric help, at which stage she revealed that she suffers from PTSD following the stillbirth of her baby a few years ago – she subsequently revealed that he was born with his umbilical chord wrapped around his neck. At this stage, many people immediately offered condolences and retreated from the discussion but a few continued to torment her, one particularly dreadful response being a cartoon representation of Pepe the Frog (a well-known internet meme) with an umbilical cord wrapped around its neck (shown below).

Pepe the Frog umbilical cord

Another user suggested that her baby’s death was her own fault for taking drugs during her pregnancy, and continued to hassle her, claiming she was making up the story to get sympathy.

Eventually she retreated completely from the argument and a friend took over responses on her behalf, sending out a message from her account to all her followers to help him identify the person who was doing the majority of the trolling.

Within minutes, somebody had obliged by providing a link to the Facebook profile page of the person involved. Now, this practice is referred to in the internet community as ‘doxxing’ (from the word ‘documents’) and refers to posting personal information about a person on a public forum. It is strictly against Twitter’s community guidelines and in normal circumstances would get the person banned from the platform, or at least would cause a temporary suspension of their account.

And this is where the double standard kicks in. Despite many complaints, not only have Twitter not banned or suspended either Lily Allen’s account or that of the person who ‘doxxed’ her tormentor, but the mainstream press have since put out a story focusing on the trolling that she received, dismissing her comments about pensioners as ‘a joke to highlight the anti-muslim / anti-immigrant sentiment in society’ i.e. by referring to ‘extremist pensioners’ rather than ‘extremist muslims’ and referring to pensioners ‘taking NHS appointments and not contributing to society’ she was really trying to point out people’s prejudices towards immigrants.

Now, I have to admit the above explanation actually makes sense in retrospect, but just as PewDie Pie probably should have recognised there was a good chance that the two young lads in India would take his challenge completely seriously, so Lily Allen should have recognised that irony is incredibly difficult to detect on a platform such as Twitter, and absolutely nobody who saw her initial poll and her follow-up comments considered the fact that she might be trying to make some nuanced point about discrimination, especially given her reputation for outlandish statements and behaviour. And much though that in no way forgives the severe amount of trolling she received as a result, and the despicable lows to which some of those trolls went, it just strikes me as a huge double standard that the press, while willing to absolutely destroy PewDie Pie’s career over a joke gone wrong, will jump in to defend Lily Allen in similar circumstances. I can only imagine the level of trolling PewDie Pie has received in the last week, but of course that doesn’t make the newspapers at all.

The differences, of course, are obvious. Lily Allen’s stunt, in the eyes of the press, is completely forgiveable as it sought to highlight discrimination and anti-muslim sentiment. And the incredibly insensitive responses to her subsequent confession about her son’s stillbirth have evoked an enormous amount of sympathy, while ignoring the fact that the only reason she made the revelations about her son’s death was in response to abuse she was receiving as a result of an argument she herself had started.

PewDie Pie’s stunt, on the other hand, is portrayed as totally unforgiveable as the underlying message is anti-semitic. And he doesn’t have a tragic back-story with which to claim sympathy.

But I think there is something else at play here.

The rise of the ‘alternative press’, made up of independent journalists, bloggers and in particular YouTubers, has the traditional press very much on the back foot. Some of these YouTube stars, PewDie Pie in particular, are incredibly talented, extremely engaging and have a far wider reach globally, particularly among the younger demographic, than any of these mainstream media outlets can dream of reaching. The fact that they are producing what appears to be largely rubbish, is presumably even more irksome to those who consider themselves serious journalists and broadcasters. As a result of this, I can’t help detecting a sense of glee in much of the reporting about PewDie Pie’s downfall.

It is clear from the articles on Lily Allen, that the media have contacted Allen or somebody close to her for comment or clarification on the timeline of events, prior to printing their articles. Not so the Wall Street Journal, in their exposé of PewDie Pie. According to his own comments in a subsequent video, no attempt was made by the Wall Street Journal to reach him for clarification on any of the videos they used as examples of his anti-semitism; it was only after the article had been published and the damage had been done to his reputation, that he was given a chance to explain himself.  His explanation, that he was using the stunt to highlight the ridiculousness of the fiverr platform and the things that people would do for money, by that stage fell flat. The damage had already been done.

To be honest, I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for him – it was a stupid thing to do and once the controversy dies down he will in all likelihood manage to brush it off and move on (he is still making videos which are still being watched by a loyal audience). But as PewDie Pie himself, and many of his followers, have since been at pains to point out, ‘context matters’.

In the context of what PewDie Pie was aiming to show, his actions were not meant to be offensive, and similarly, Lily Allen’s comments, once the context was explained, are understandable. But in choosing Twitter as a platform on which to try to make her point about muslims and immigrants, she of all people should have known that the context would likely get lost, and should certainly have been prepared for the level of outrage she received in response. While I have an enormous amount of sympathy for her over the loss of her son and the absolutely vile abuse she received once she chose to reveal the circumstances, I cannot help but think that, unlike PewDie Pie, she has been quite fortunate to escape mainstream media censure over what was ultimately a very ill-judged prank.

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