Cancel culture is a phenomenon of exposing a person of their offensive values, actions or inaction, and speech. This is followed by the act of ‘cancelling’ said persons by retracting their influence or credibility on the internet. In recent years, social media platforms have seen an amplified rise of the cancel culture phenomena, most predominantly Twitter. This rise has also induced debates if we as a society should condemn and cancel culture as a form of social retribution.
Social Media and its Potential as Platform for Social Justice
Twitter is observably the epicentre of this phenomenon. Twitter has also been acknowledged for its potential as a platform for social justice. Studies have pointed out how Twitter gives equal opportunity for all its users to be heard and partake in social discussions such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. The creation of these hashtags also allows global users to be exposed as well as partake in the conversation. However, Twitter also gives an equal opportunity to disseminate ideas that are counterproductive to the social justice agenda, which has witnessed public figures using the platform to publish their attacks on minorities.
While cancel culture is very apparent on Twitter, it is not exclusive to this platform. Other social media platforms have also contributed to this phenomena, including YouTube, Instagram, and even TikTok. Essentially any platform that provides an opportunity for individuals to have influence, will witness the cancel culture phenomena where one creator exposes another on the platform. On that note, any influencers that preaches or reflects behavior that are considered ‘morally wrong’ can be condemned through culture. However, this then begs the question of whose morals are right?
On the Matter of Morality and Social Justice
We generally define morals as our ability to define the bad and the good, the right from the wrong. However, our morals are also defined by the society and the environment that we identify with. To understand this, we could compare the Western to Eastern moral standards. On this, Hwang (2015) notes that Western morals standards are essentially based on one’s autonomy whereas Eastern upholds societal and/or religious justifications above individual means. Two individuals with these contrasting moral compasses may not necessarily agree with the other, however, they cannot easily dismiss the other’s morality as wrong since they are ‘right’ in their own terms.
Now, on the internet the concept of morality seems to take the side of the majority. On that note, however, your majority may be different from my majority.
We need to remember that social media platforms are designed to customize your feed to your interests. If your interests are to support Trump, then that is what you will see. When we’re talking about social justice and morality, what you see on your phone will be a constant stream of confirmation to your side with little to no insight of the opposite view. In the chance that you have seen an opposing opinion, it has been disputed by an opinion of your own side. Because of this, you may always think that your ‘side’ is always right while your ‘opposition’ thinks you are wrong because of the constant confirmation on their own side. So, who really is right?
A side note on this: we as a society have pushed through historical tragedies and proclaimed certain moral values as inhumane such as enslaving people, racism, genocide, religious restriction, and fundamental human rights. With new revelations and new moral values being introduced to the public, global attitudes to these moral values are also evolving. However, it is only acceptable if the majority are accepting it. Once again, it comes back to ‘your majority may be different from my majority‘. At the end of the day, it’s a never ending cycle of yours is yours and mine is mine, but what I believe in should also be what you believe in. Yet sometimes, the line between could also be confused with ignorance.
Twitter Mob Mentality
So, we have discussed how the majority works on the internet. In association to cancel culture, it would not happen if the majority couldn’t agree on one underlined moral value.
On this note, let’s take a look at mob mentality.
Mob mentality describes how one individual could be influenced by their own peers, in this case their majority, and adapt to the emotions and behavior being portrayed by said majority. Yes, this is proof of a strong bond and self identity to your peers and community. However, this could also be the downfall to cancel culture.
Let’s recall back to how the internet works. Social media adjusts to your interests and values. It tries to get your engagement, and to get that is by provoking your emotions: anger, sadness, sympathy, adoration. Social media platforms such as Twitter observes high engagement in association with high emotion to gain more engagement and provoke more emotions. This feature has its own perks. On one hand, it could help reach more people to help donate to a cancer patient that needs funds for surgery. On the other, it could snowball into a social media hate wave.
Psychologically, mob mentality is associated with deindividuation. You are now being influenced by the emotion of the majority you identify with. Sometimes, we feel safe masking hate under mob mentality in the name of social justice. We have the protection of the majority, we have anonymity. The hate we portray to a target can be justified as the emotion of the masses. This is the big flaw of the whole scheme.
Cancel culture would not happen if the majority does not agree on an underlined moral value that an individual is disrespecting. Cancel culture is also heavily influenced by emotions since morals are being transgressed. High emotions bring high engagement. High emotions also trigger mob mentality. Mob mentality becomes the armor to hate masked as social retribution and justified as social justice.
‘Since they did that, I can do this to them.’
This association is not just theory. We have observed this recurring throughout different platforms of social media. In 2019, James Charles was on the receiving end of the social media hate mob. Last year, Connell twins were cancelled by Indonesian netizens for promoting their OnlyFans on their social media. Earlier this year, there was the case of Kristen Grey where some used the chance of the exposing wave to publicly express their attacks on her identity as a black woman and retracted their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This month, BTS Armys flooded Ariana Grande’s Instagram with hate and unfavorable comments, completely disregarding the start of the issue which was first directed towards the Academy itself.
Cancel culture can be masked under the sentiment of ‘wanting to teach’ an individual of what is ‘right’. However, cancel culture can also mask hate that is triggered by it. The justification of the phenomena itself is not concrete since moral values are based on majority, but is the majority always right? This article also has yet to discuss the matter of perception of right and wrong that also influences cancel culture.
So at the end of the day, the question stands: should we cancel cancel culture?
Hwang, K. K. (2015). Morality ‘East’ and ‘West’: cultural concerns. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 15, 806-810.
Bouvier, G. (2020). Racist call-outs and cancel culture on Twitter: The limitations of the platform’s ability to define issues of social justice. Discourse, Context & Media, 38, 100431.