In our modern, technologically-advanced, social media-obsessed society, we are surrounded by hashtags, trends, and Twitter moments telling us who we are supposed to support and who is being canceled. Cancel culture involves people—usually on social media—determining that someone has committed problematic actions, holding them accountable by bringing attention to their actions and revoking all support for them. But in an era where sensationalized stories produce outrage-provoking media, what does being canceled truly mean?
Platforms such as Twitter often create echo chambers where a user’s views are reflected back at them. It is not a coincidence that sensationalized content consumes our media diets. Algorithms love outrage. Our extreme emotions are targets for exploitation, used to extract clicks and shares.
“Most of the social media feeds that we think of today—the Facebook news feed, the Twitter feed, and so on—are filtered in some way,” Nick Seaver, an anthropology professor who studies technology and attention, explained. “You don’t see every single thing that someone you follow posts, you see a subset of those things that have been filtered with a model of your interests in mind.”
Algorithms work by tracking a user’s activity, such as which posts they click on or who they follow, and then reflecting the collected data back in the posts a user sees. This means that people are more likely to come across opinions or articles they already agree with, instead of ones that challenge their viewpoints or present opposing information. The result is a system that incentivizes outrage-based media as the clearest opportunity for brands and influencers to grow.
Seaver describes how signals from algorithms shape online interaction: “On the basis of those signals, people argue that these systems can incentivize certain kinds of behavior… if you’re a ‘thing-maker’ that wants your thing to be shown to more people, you might want to set up your headline, for instance, for people to click, even if they’re lies, even if they’re misleading, even if they’re unnecessarily sensational.”
The fact that people—and algorithms—favor outrage online helps to explain why cancel culture is so prevalent.
The intense scrutiny faced by celebrities—whether in the traditional sense or in the world of online influencers—is at the forefront of the conversation on the effects and ethics of canceling. Canceling can often lead to harassment, bullying, and even death threats.
Despite the calls to cancel that can be displayed by Twitter users, anger tends to be short-lived. We have poor online attention spans, and with the constant stream of media on our feeds, it is difficult to stay focused on one issue—especially once it’s no longer trending. Even though canceling is highly visible in the moment, there is a silent majority that may not care about the problematic behavior being called out. These circumstances beg the question: can celebrities truly be canceled? Even when hashtags declare them to be “over,” celebrities’ careers still frequently remain successful. Scarlett Johannson, who has been canceled for accepting roles meant for Asian and transgender actors, still stars in blockbuster movies and was recently nominated for two Academy Awards. Youtubers like Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, and Jake Paul have millions of subscribers, despite being canceled many times for controversial actions.
However, cancel culture can be useful in giving individual fans the opportunity to decide if they still want to support a celebrity and to speak out against behavior they find offensive. Freshman Ayia Elsadig expressed, “[Canceling] becomes beneficial because if you get rid of someone who is institutionalizing all their prejudices against certain people, then those people get liberated from that.”
The way people use the term cancel culture varies from situation to situation, which can confuse the term’s meaning. Sometimes people claim a situation is cancel culture to mask the consequences of harmful behavior. This can trivialize the backlash they receive. The extreme outrage found online can make it difficult to distinguish between when people are rightfully being punished for deplorable actions and when the online masses are merely jumping on what is currently trending. Outrage over sexual assault can be trending right next to outrage over a meme. Regardless of when outrage is justified or not, online discourse can make it difficult to discuss serious matters, even when the concerns are valid.
Cancel culture permeates society beyond the Twitter bubble and has real implications in everyday life. An anonymous Tufts student shared that there was an instance of leadership in a student organization where a member was asked to abdicate their position, but this was opposed on the basis of it being cancel culture. The student said, “I keep seeing cancel culture come up, and it’s very often misapplied and used to shield people from accountability by saying ‘Oh, no, it’s cancel culture,’ and they’re not really getting canceled for a small mistake but being held accountable for doing harm.”
A celebrity being canceled is also not the same as the type of cancel culture that is found in smaller communities, especially because of the difference in power relationships. Elsadig said, “In terms of magnitude it’s definitely different. A celebrity has a platform, has more reach, and so more people can take part in boycotting a celebrity. Where when it’s one person, it’s more of a personal relationship. In a weird way, I think it would hurt more with a regular person because those are personal relationships you have.”
“The smaller the power differential, the easier it is to hold somebody accountable. And I don’t think that that’s necessarily canceling,” junior Marley Hillman said. “So my hot take is that cancel culture doesn’t exist.”
Especially with the amount of activism on campus, it can become hard to find the space for debate, similar to how algorithms limit productive conversations online. “We’re a very liberal campus, and we sort of carry that forward with us, and that can blind us from [the fact that] there is another side,” Elsadig added.
However, in some cases it is possible to redeem oneself after being canceled, depending on the context. This can look very different depending on whether it is celebrities or friends, because their past actions tend to be judged differently. Regarding people we know in our lives offline, Elsadig explained, “These are people that we know and we spend our time with, so if they repeatedly do it, then we can give that judgement of how well we know that person.”
Hillman shared, “I think people can change, but it’s really important that they show actual change.”