The millions of dollars Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, makes every year from posting humorous, and often tactless, videos of himself playing video games online puts the average person’s salary to shame. The 27-year-old Swede topped Forbes’ list of highest-paid YouTube stars in 2016, when he reportedly brought in $15 million—almost double the take-home of the next highest paid YouTuber.
But business partners including Disney and YouTube are now severing ties with the popular online personality after he made several Nazi and anti-Semitic “jokes” in recent video clips.
In one video shared on Jan. 11, which was highlighted in a Wall Street Journal investigation (paywall), Kjellberg was shown watching as two South Asian men, whom he paid via a crowdfunding platform, held a sign that read “Death to all Jews.” Kjellberg said the stunt was meant to show that people on the freelancer site Fiverr would say anything for a few bucks. (The men in the video, for their part, said they didn’t know enough English to understand what the sign was saying.)
Kjellberg also reportedly played the Nazi Party anthem, gave a brief Nazi salute, showed a clip from an Adolf Hitler speech, posted swastikas drawn by fans, and watched a clip of Hitler while in a military uniform, in other videos posted on YouTube over the last six months, according to the Journal article. The publication found nine clips in all that featured anti-Jewish or Nazi references.
On Monday, Disney-owned Maker Studios terminated its relationship with Kjellberg, who it had partnered with on its online-video network Revelmode. ”Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate,” Maker Studios told the BBC.
YouTube also cancelled the release of the second season of “Scare PewDiePie,” a web series produced for the subscription service YouTube Red, a company spokesperson said. And it removed PewDiePie’s channel from its Google Preferred advertising platform, which spotlights the most popular and brand-safe content on YouTube.
Kjellberg can still earn revenue through regular advertising on YouTube. But the platform did turn off monetization for the videos in question because they broke its advertising policies. The videos were not removed by YouTube, however, because they did not cross the community guidelines for hateful or harmful content. (A few, including the clip with the anti-Semitic sign, were missing from the channel as of Tuesday, and may have been removed by Kjellberg or his account administrators.)
“I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive,” Kjellberg wrote on his Tumblr account on Sunday. But he added that he didn’t think his subscribers took the jokes seriously. ”I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary,” he wrote. “I know my audience understands that and that is why they come to my channel.”
This isn’t the first time Kjellberg has caught flak for his “humor.” He was briefly suspended from Twitter last fall because of another hilarious “joke” in which he told followers that he and fellow YouTuber “JackSepticEye” had joined ISIS. The social-media platform, evidently, was not amused.
PewDiePie’s following hasn’t diminished much since the controversy. He still has by far and away the most subscribers on YouTube—over 53 million.