[ACADEMIC ESSAY] Cancel culture: Online bullying disguised as social justice
Updated: Apr 14
The advancement in technology and social media has created many trends and phenomenon. One that has particularly took the social media world by storm in recent years is the ‘Cancel Culture’. As defined in the dictionary, ‘Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (cancelling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.’ (Lemoine, 2020). However, this definition has been proven to have changed through the years as in today’s context, cancel culture is the phenomenon of deliberately denouncing and publicly shaming someone to cause harm, be it to public figures or everyday people to hold them accountable for their actions or words that are politically incorrect. This paper will argue that the advancement of online communities and social networks has caused a regression in cancel culture, breeding dangerous cyber bullies amongst us. This will be seen, firstly by looking back on how cancel culture has changed through the years with the changes on to the online communities and platforms, exploring how cancel culture is breeding dangerous cyber bullies and lastly, the human natures in cancel culture.
Regression of cancel culture
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Cancel culture’s initial good intention has regressed tremendously into a toxic and dangerous practice where extreme online bullying is disguised as social justice. The practice of ‘cancelling’ collectively started around 2017 when fans started boycotting celebrities for their controversial actions or remarks. (Greenspan, 2020). It was initially targeted to public figures, celebrities and companies with the intentions of withdrawing support until they hold accountability for their actions and apologise or remain out of sight. Twitter was the first social media platform where the phenomenon started gaining attention due to the use of trending hashtags. It brought like-minded people together to call out offensive behaviour, especially when it involves social issues like racism, discrimination or homophobia.
One such incident of a celebrity being cancelled in the early stages of cancel culture was a Youtube Celebrity, ‘Logan Paul’. (Garel, 2018) He was cancelled due to a Youtube video he uploaded where it showed him stumbling upon a corpse in the Aokigahara Forest, a sacred site notorious for the high number of suicides cases found there. Logan Paul made an insensitive joke towards the corpse, saying “Yo, are you alive?” while showing the blurred silhouette of the dead body. This caused a major uproar with millions of fans unhappy with his disrespectful demeanour, starting a worldwide hashtag trend of #LoganPaulIsOverParty to express their disappointment and encourage everyone to boycott him. Youtube was also involved as they had to stop monetizing his videos due to the impact of the cancel culture.
However, with a public apology and just 2 weeks of hiatus, Logan Paul came back and continued making money through social media and people still supported him. This shows how the cancel culture was not focussed on destroying a career but more of calling out the mistakes the individual has done and demand for an action in return.
Twitter hashtags was what initially propagated the new toxic ‘Cancel culture’ phenomenon and it slowly spread to the use of Facebook groups, forums and fan pages. However, that cancel culture is different now. What was once an innocent cry for help using hashtags and fan pages has turned to serious death threat groups and forums for people to share their thoughts and sensitive information they found of the ‘cancelled’ individual. Also, people sniff any type of ‘cancel worthy’ content and ostracize to ultimately destroy the individual. Cancel culture has clearly turned into online bullying. According to the teacher’s bullying definition, there are 3 features of bullying – Power imbalance, intention to harm and repetition. (Chiappe, J.C., 2019). Analysing cancel culture, it involves a mob ostracising and repeated criticisms with intentions of punishing a single individual based on their alleged unlawful action. These characteristics mirror each other yet cancel culture is still growing and causing more harm behind the mask of social justice. Just like bullying cases in school, the effects of cancel culture has also sparked a number of suicide cases. One unfortunate case was of the lecturer in MAO College Lahore who was caught in a cancel culture cross fire after a female student accused him of sexual harassment as a part of the ‘Me Too’ movement. The torments and public shame later pushed him to suicide and it was only later on proven to be a false allegations. (Areeba, M. K., 2020) It is no longer a call for change but these are a dangerous community of people from all ages with one motive – to deliberately destroy a life that are punishable in their eyes.
Hence, the is no doubt that cancel culture has regressed from its initial good intentions to give voices to the minority in the groups regarding calling out offensive behaviour to now being a practice for people to justify their online bullying as mob justice even when this could drive an individual to suicide.
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Cancel culture is breeding dangerous cyber bullies
As we established that cancel culture has been proven to be another source of online bullying, this introduces the breeding ground of dangerous cyber bullies, even potentially cyber perpetrators. Despite the fact that there are many celebrities and brands that have been cancelled and punished, the ones that truly suffers the most are the everyday people with normal jobs and lives. These are the type of people that the cancel culture love to drag to the ground when they find the opportunity to. On top of the harsh comments or, death threats or public shaming, people go through extreme lengths to ‘cancel’ and destroy an individual’s personal lives.
Death threats and criticisms are amongst the popular occurrence in the cancel culture. However, people do deliberately try to hurt and condemn this individuals and drive them to actual suicide. Just like the case of 21 year old, Wilson Gavin. (Nunn, G., 2020). He was a protest leader protesting against marriage equality, where he was featured in a #VoteNo video in the Australia 2017 same-sex marriage postal vote. His actions have sparked a lot of unhappiness and ate in the LGBTQ+ community. He faced extreme cyberhate, receiving heavy criticism as well as death threats some saying they would want to beat him up, stab him and threatened to find him. Words like he had a ‘hittable face’ and he was an ‘oxygen thief’ were all over his twitter comments left by strangers. This overwhelming hate and threat to his life has caused the young protest leader to take his own life. Yet, despite real death caused by cancel culture, it still exists hence, grooming people of the cancel culture that this action is justifiable.
Valid transgression of social behaviour aside, people look for all sorts of personal attacks on others for the most absurd reasons and would publicly shame them. This happened to a teen who was cancelled and attacked for wearing a Chinese costume to prom in light that she has committed cultural appropriation. (Schmidt, 2019) She was heavily attacked by hundreds of strangers sending her hurtful messages and even emailing her school in hopes to destroy her further. This is unfortunately a normal occurrence in cancel culture now where users would take matters into their own hands. With a simple ‘Twitter, do your thing’, twitter users would come together and gather private and personal information of the cancelled victim and make moves to destroy their lives. Information ranging from, the individual’s full name, school, workplace, and sometimes even address. With these information gathered, they will act on it to disrupt the livelihood of the individual by getting them kicked put or fired, some even showing up at their houses to teach them a lesson.
Another case how the toxic cancel culture is grooming such behaviour is over a viral video that surfaced of Amy Cooper. (Ortiz, 2020) She had called the police on a birdwatcher in Central Park after he allegedly asked her to put her dog’s leash on as it was the park rule. People cancelled her and took matters to their own hands when they decided to dig up her personal life and find out where she worked at. Upon discovering that, people called up her workplace and eventually got her fired. That has proven to be the toxic and dangerous power that cancel culture is giving people. People should not be given the liberty to go as far as to mess with someone’s livelihood to teach them a lesson. Although her actions are wrong, the destructive nature of cancel culture is not the way to educate them.
There is no question how far people of the cancel culture will go just to ‘punish’ these individuals, even if it means breaching laws or ethical values to get there. The dangerous power that people of the cancel culture hold is terrifying and unethical as messing with someone’s livelihood shows that their purpose is not to serve a lesson but to intentionally cause harm and ruin a life just for the satisfaction of it especially when the ‘canceling’ is done online.
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Human Nature and Cancel Culture
Cancel culture is an effective method to target individuals who, in their eyes, have committed moral violations. Those responsible are naturally inclined to cause harm and suffering in order to “educate” the victims. A quote taken from Memories, Dreams, and Reflections states that, “Everything that irritates us from others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves” (Jaffe & Jung, 1961). To elaborate, observing our behaviour and feelings when the actions of others are “irritating” tells us a lot about our character. In terms of cancel culture, when individuals are “irritated” by others due to their moral violations, we can dive deeper into understanding this concept.
For many, one of the reasons that cancel culture is part of their nature is because the social status of the aggressor is increased while the status of the “enemy” is reduced. The sociometrical status of an individual is a significant aspect of one’s character. According to research, respect and admiration from our peers are more important to our sense of well being than socioeconomic status (Galinsky, 2012). For many, people approach achieving an elevated social status by fame, wealth, or power. Unfortunately, another option exists where people aim to take advantage of the mistakes that others make. Increasing one’s social status relatively requires some form of effort or achievement. For example, donating to charity or participating in social movements against injustice can be viewed in the public’s eyes as a praise for respectable acts. However, a small mistake can instantaneously tarnish an individual’s reputation despite their good deeds. Society is constructed to quickly assign moral blame for any negative actions while slow to grant credit for positive actions. By taking advantage, people flourish by demeaning others and engage in a culture where dropping another’s social rank for small wrongdoings is rewarded by a gain in social status.
To participate in a culture that aims to shame an individual, it demands the cooperation and support from others who share the same vision. Cancel culture is most effective when people unite to serve a common purpose. Satisfaction tends to be achieved when a goal is met and a feeling of solidarity, teamwork, and justice is matched. This was made possible with the key driving factor being Twitter hashtags, Facebook and Instagram fan pages and forums as it gives them the ideal platform to combine powers and force a change that everyone agrees on in the particular online community. Naturally, humans enjoy the feeling of unity to promote a change. According to a study from University of Richmond, joining groups, “satisfies our need to belong … and achieve goals that might elude us if we worked alone” (Forsyth, 2020). Cancel culture strengthens social bonds creating a collective activity where members are more effective in their pursuit of canceling the victim. Not only that, when surrounded in a group, humans have a natural behavior to imitate one another’s behavior. Psychologists refer to this occurrence as mob mentality. In groups, a considerable amount of impact and influence can be achieved. Therefore, individuals find it natural to be part of a movement such as cancel culture and aim to work together to achieve a common goal.
Another connection between human nature and cancel culture is the emotional satisfaction that is achieved when an individual is “cancelled”. The culture undoubtedly produces fast rewards, from an earlier example of Youtube’s stand to stop monetizing Logan Paul, the immediate social rewards to the public are gratifying and satisfying. Although instant gratification is achieved, individuals do not consider the looming possibility of future effects on the victim. A prime example can be observed when music artist, Kanye West, was spotted publicly supporting the controversial figure, Donald Trump. A predominantly “Anti-Trump” demographic, Kanye West was a main target in the cancel culture. Fans of his demanded a public apology and close friends of his condemned West’s support for Donald Trump.
Through this turmoil, the artist was visibly affected. As a method to alleviate the backfire, West turned to opioids as a form of remedy. In an interview with TMZ, Kanye admitted to being addicted to opioids and opened about his mental breakdown. The participants of cancel culture were satisfied when the artist was targeted with hate and hostility, however not considering the long term impacts can be disastrous. It is natural for humans to favor immediate rewards over long term gratification without regard to future consequences. This is another correlation between human nature and cancel culture.
In summary, the change in the nature of cancel culture has proven to be grooming people to be dangerous cyberbullies. Exploring how cancel culture has changed through the years, how cancel culture is breeding dangerous cyber bullies and lastly, the human natures in cancel culture has all shown the toxic and destructive purpose of cancel culture. Actions should be taken to cancel the cancel culture as in the long term, the social media world would be nothing but a dangerous and unhealthy platform with higher suicide cases and negativity.
This paper was submitted by Farah Adriana from Curtin Singapore. There’s no attempt to edit the paper for this publication.
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