Art by Whitney Powell
Plans get canceled, T.V. shows get canceled and, sometimes, people get canceled.
Some call it ‘accountability’ and others call it a ‘time-out,’ but one thing everyone said they can agree on is the mention of ‘cancel culture’ sends chills down their spines. In recent years, Public Relations Professor Jamila Cupid said cancel culture has become one of the greatest concerns of social media users.
“Everything gets polarized, and then we’re not having conversations,” Cupid said. “We don’t know how to relate to each other anymore. We forget that our differences help to make the world go round.”
Defining cancel culture
In October 2017, the New York Times published a series of articles outlining producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women from 1993 to 2013. That same week, the Weinstein Company fired Weinstein and the Academy expelled him, according to NPR and the New York Times.
Following Weinstein’s “cancellation” and later criminal convictions, the Me Too movement — a movement focused on accountability regarding sexual misconduct — began. Starting in 2005 and ramping up in 2017, 60 women accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault dating back to the 1960s, according to NBC.
Although a court overturned his conviction in 2021, he remains canceled — no one will work with him and his once loyal fans have left him behind.
In May 2021, Chrissy Teigen’s 2011 tweets “bullying” Courtney Stodden while Stodden was in an abusive relationship with a man more than three times her age came to light, according to Vox. Followers immediately canceled Teigen when the tweets resurfaced, resulting in her losing brand sponsors, social media followers and receiving threats toward her and her family.
She issued an apology a month later and returned to social media — and all her branded content — as normal.
The spectrum of wrongdoings that get people canceled is broad. Some deserve it, and others, people argue, do not. The question many wrestle with is what cancel culture truly means, and if redemption is possible.
Alumna Chloe Carr (‘22) works at P.R. firm KWT Global, and she said she has seen how politics play a big role in cancel culture.
“Anything that you post that has a political tone is up in the air to get you canceled,” Carr said.
With over 15,000 followers on Instagram, junior Kaitlyn Lingis said although there is not a specific definition, everyone knows what cancel culture is, and because people can misinterpret posts on the internet easily, Lingis said she is mindful of her social media use.
“I understand how that culture works,” Lingis said. “And I don’t want anyone to get a wrong idea about me.”
Junior Ray Morris has over 92,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 23,000 followers on TikTok. She said cancel culture is a multifaceted concept.
“A person’s career that they’ve worked for for years can be completely ruined overnight by something that may or may not be true,” Morris said.
At the same time, Morris said she does not see people getting canceled only over political statements. She thinks even if politics were less divisive, cancel culture would still be present on social media.
“We are in a very sensitive era where everything we do or say does matter and is recorded and is put online,” Morris said. “So I would say it’s more of a social change than a political one. I think obviously you can apply that to politics, but you could apply it to pop culture and other things.”
Cupid said she used to see cancel culture as something that could help people learn from their mistakes — a method of accountability. It quickly lost that meaning, Cupid said, and became a silencing tool.
“If you just say sorry, and you don’t know why you’re apologizing, I think that’s really where cancel culture got a bad name,” Cupid said.
Not everyone avoids cancel culture — some influencers purposely create controversy to draw attention and push their name into the public eye, which is something Jon Pfeiffer, entertainment attorney and communication professor, said he does not agree with.
“You’re just going to get a bunch of people coming to look at your channel that one time,” Pfeiffer said.
Negative impacts of cancel culture
With social media being a staple of Gen Z and Millennial life, Cupid said the anxiety cancel culture causes on a daily basis is taking a toll on mental health.
“I didn’t realize at first how much it weighs on them [students],” Cupid said. “I knew this conversation was going on, and these ideas were floating around, but some of them talk about the pressure, the weight of trying to come across as perfect.”
As a young social media user, Carr said cancel culture is at the top of a lot of people’s minds.
“If you’re canceled, that comes with the connotation of like, there’s no going back,” Carr said. “There’s kind of no room for forgiveness. So I think people are really afraid of that — if they do one thing, they’re stuck and maybe they’re done for good.”
What will get someone canceled is unpredictable, Carr said, so sometimes sharing opinions online feels like walking a tightrope.
“There is a fine line of how much is too much,” Carr said. “I mean, you don’t want to say anything offensive, but you also want to be able to express and hear others’ opinions.”
Lingis said she has to withhold a lot of her opinions because she knows how easily she could lose her followers.
“For me personally, I just abide by the rules,” Lingis said. “I just make it about myself and make sure to not really post things that are super controversial.”
Morris said a lot of cancel culture stems from the lack of human connection on social media.
“As humans, we all make mistakes, and it’s so easy to lose sight of that — especially when we only have connections with people on the internet,” Morris said.
Getting canceled is not just about making a mistake and having it be in the public eye, Morris said. It is also about the magnitude of hatred it cultivates.
“A lot of people forget that creators and celebrities — people that we view on our screens — are real people and have emotions like everyone else,” Morris said. “That makes it a lot easier to go after these individuals.”
Fans can shift very quickly from showing love to hate, Cupid said, and this has an impact on the way celebrities approach problems.
“They [celebrities] are like, ‘What happened to all the love? They loved me, and now they don’t,’” Cupid said. “Their egos get hurt, and now they want the quick and short fix. So they’re not hearing this conversation about the long haul.”
Positive impacts of cancel culture
The honesty of younger generations can be a double-edged sword at times, Cupid said. One benefit of social media is the ability for people to stand up for a cause and for a person who did wrong to educate themselves.
“Now we’re having a lot of different voices being validated in conversations, and they feel empowered to say, ‘OK, well the people who’ve done these things to us or have done not so great things, they should now be held accountable,’” Cupid said.
If people viewed cancel culture as “accountability culture,” Cupid said she thinks people would be more inclined to learn from their mistakes.
Morris said some people are canceled because they deserve to be, and as a model, she feels people in the industry getting canceled has kept her safe.
“In my experience as a model, I’ve seen a lot of photographers get canceled online but for their inappropriate actions toward other models,” Morris said. “I’m thankful to be aware of that, and I’m thankful for the bravery of the models that did speak up and say something so that doesn’t happen again.”
While cancel culture can create fear, Morris also said it can make people more aware of their words and actions.
Pfeiffer said cancel culture has also seeped into the legal world. In 2019, federal prosecutors indicted “Full House” star Lori Loughlin and her husband for paying the University of Southern California $500,000 to admit their daughters — one being influencer Olivia Jade Giannulli — into the University as part of the rowing team recruits despite them never having been on any rowing team, according to CNN.
When the scandal broke, all brands cut ties with Giannulli, she stopped posting on her YouTube channel and many of her nearly two million subscribers unfollowed her, according to Variety Magazine. Ever since, the “Olivia Jade Clause,” as Pfeiffer calls it, has changed the way brands approach contracts with influencers.
“If you do anything that’s going to put the brand in a bad light, they can cancel the deal,” Pfeiffer said. “I now call it the ‘Olivia Jade Clause,’ because after Olivia Jade came through, they now have added language that if you’ve done anything in your past, and they find out about it, they can cancel the deal.”
Preparing for cancellation
Cupid said most P.R. firms are always prepared for their clients to get canceled. Often, firms even dig up problematic pieces of a celebrity’s life and create toolkits to tackle the issue if it arises.
“There are the things that I already know about them that may be problematic, or issues that people express concern about around them,” Cupid said. “So at any given point, if something comes up, we might actually end up having to address it — clean things up — and kind of repurpose their image, we’re prepared to do that.”
Routine advice Pfeiffer said he gives all his clients is to get ahead of the issue. He said once someone gains a following, people will begin to dig up their past, so it is important to be proactive.
“If they get over a certain level of followers, I will tell them, ‘Go back and look at your old tweets, go back and look at your old videos,’” Pfeiffer said. “Because the tendency of a young influencer is to overshare.”
Cupid said there is a difference in how celebrities redeem themselves compared to influencers. Because a celebrity has qualities about their brand people can appreciate besides their personality — such as their music or their movies — it is easier for fans to justify remaining a follower.
“If they were liked enough, if they had a huge enough fan base or audience, they were considered iconic or something like that, then they could continue, and somebody or a group of people would sweep it under the rug,” Cupid said.
For Lingis, she said the risk of getting canceled is worth it if she is sharing something she believes in.
“If it causes a problem, I would be so passionate about that subject that it wouldn’t matter,” Lingis said.
The future of cancel culture
Many people view cancel culture as the only reaction to controversy, and that is the most harmful part of it, Lingis said.
“Cancel culture is a tough thing because it is very real, and, personally, I don’t think it should be very real,” Lingis said. “If somebody posted something that you don’t agree with, then you should be able to just unfollow them.”
Lingis said she sees cancel culture as ineffective in teaching people how to handle disagreement.
“I honestly don’t think that cancel culture will change people’s minds on any subject,” Lingis said. “I think it will just divide people more.”
Pfeiffer said he thinks people are losing the ability to be OK with differing opinions and are blowing certain issues out of proportion — distracting from topics that actually may warrant a person getting canceled.
“I don’t think it’s fair to judge somebody on what you might have done 10 years ago, especially if you’ve pulled them [posts] down,” Pfeiffer said. “Also, there are times where maybe it’s not necessarily wrong to say certain things but you could get canceled, like, for instance, politics.”
In her own experience, Carr said cancel culture does not consider that people can grow and change — and it does not give them the opportunity to either.
“Being in influencer marketing and seeing people have to look back at a post that they posted 10 years ago and address those is hard,” Carr said. “It doesn’t stand true to who they are now.”
Going forward, Morris said Gen Z and future generations will have all their lives documented on the internet, and as they grow up and change, people need to learn to be more forgiving of mistakes. Still, Morris said people should not have to overlook those mistakes.
“A lot of people make mistakes, but at some point, people do have to be held accountable and address it,” Morris said.
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