It’s hard to make jokes on the internet. It just is. It’s similar to having a conversation with someone over text: It’s easy to miss tone, or sarcasm, or context.
Take my colleague, Business Insider’s senior editor Josh Barro. He’s a decent guy, but on Thursday he tweeted this while watching Trump’s press conference. If you don’t have the context of the press conference, this tweet might seem pretty offensive to you!
Now, as a Jewish man, I do take some offense to this tweet. I know Josh is making a joke here, but the people who share or retweet him might not realize it’s a joke. They might retweet him for the wrong reasons. That’s the part I’m not so okay with. (For the record, Trump had asked the press for a “nice” question and called on a guy from a Jewish publication, who asked about the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, which made Trump angry and said he’s “the least anti-Semitic person” ever and the question was “very unfair” as he had been promised a nice question. Hence the sarcastic tweet.)
So again, I’m all for making jokes. But to me, it gets hazy when people agree with the joke without realizing it’s a joke. Then, it starts getting messy.
Take YouTube star Pewdiepie. This week, everyone’s been talking about Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a Pewdiepie, after YouTube and Disney cut business ties with the 27-year-old from Sweden after a Wall Street Journal report called out several anti-Semitic/Nazi jokes made by Kjellberg, which, even according to him, were a bit beyond the pale.
The original report from The Wall Street Journal found nine videos that contained “anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery.” The Wall Street Journal found these videos and took them to YouTube and Disney, asking them for comment, and as a result, those companies decided to cut ties with him. Other news outlets reblogged The Wall Street Journal’s report, and suddenly, people had the impression that Pewdiepie was secretly anti-Semitic.
But having watched several Pewdiepie videos in the past – most recently I watched him play the entirety of “Resident Evil 7” – this accusation seemed off-kilter to me, so I decided to actually watch the videos in question.
Having watched those videos, it is clear to me that the Wall Street Journal (and other news outlets by way of aggregation) reported on those videos in the same way someone could have reported on Josh Barro’s tweet above. The report focused on the content of the issue in question without considering the important context surrounding it – context that makes you realize it’s just a joke, not a real attack on a group of people.
I’m not here to argue the merit of Pewdiepie’s videos or jokes – whether or not they should have been made in the first place, or whether or not Kjellberg was trying to make some kind of point. None of that matters.
Here’s what does matter: If you do watch those videos in their entirety – not just the clips containing the offensive material – it is clear that he is joking.
Now, it’s totally acceptable for YouTube and Disney to draw the line in terms of their respective businesses. They can choose whether or not to work with Kjellberg for any reason, and perhaps, over time, those companies will reassess their relationships with Kjellberg, and perhaps all will be settled on those fronts. But this incident is an important reminder that jokes – whether they’re funny or not – aren’t always communicated very well over the internet, and it’s all too easy to get up in arms if you’re missing the context that gives it meaning. It’s the same reason people shouldn’t get mad at comedians when they say offensive things on stage, but should get mad if those said things are said on the street: Context matters.