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Deep reckoning or fleeting outrage? Cancel culture's complexity proves a double-edged sword

Cancel culture can serve as a megaphone for otherwise marginalized voices but it also runs the risk of blowing situations out of proportion.
Image: Is cancel culture ... canceled? Maybe not.
Is cancel culture ... canceled? Maybe not.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images; AP

A lot of people have been canceled in 2019: The Central Park rape case prosecutor Linda Fairstein was canceled after a Netflix series about the case sparked renewed outrage, as was a Parkland school shooting survivor who used the N-word, and the woman who leaned over Beyoncé at the NBA finals while talking to Jay-Z. And on Father’s Day, Bill Cosby reminded a ton of people on Twitter why he’s been canceled with a widely criticized tweet about still being “America’s dad.”

Cancel culture — the social media phenomenon that takes user outrage and transforms it into a large-scale rejection of a celebrity’s work, product or place in pop culture — has affected a variety of celebrities in a wide range of situations in the last year. It has been described as a thoughtful strategy that gives agency to minorities and consumers, resulting in so-called takedowns of public figures who have engaged in egregious behavior.

But a year into its mainstream appearance, cancel culture still walks the line between a constructive reckoning and a symptom of fleeting-but-viral outrage over nearly anything perceived as a social infraction. For some, cancel culture serves as a megaphone for otherwise marginalized voices. But some media experts warn that it also has the ability to create an echo chamber of outrage while oversimplifying complex issues for the sake of going viral or to fit the character count of a tweet.

Brett Gary, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, described the positive side of cancel culture as a persistent force that demands for marginalized voices to be heard — people who historically have not had the authority to critique culture as it happens.

“It’s the power to withhold attention in an attention economy,” he said. “It’s a way to draw attention to gaffes or stupidity or outright bigotry.”

Gary said that it’s an effective way of promoting awareness about larger societal issues, like rape. Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby are examples of this — Jackson faced renewed scrutiny for alleged sexual abuse after HBO's documentary "Leaving Neverland" and Cosby's reputation was deeply tarnished after people started taking rape allegations against him seriously.

Nicole Weisensee Egan, an investigative reporter who covered Cosby’s trials and wrote the book “‘Chasing Cosby’: The Downfall of America’s Dad,” said that social media became “the great equalizer” in his case. In 2005, Cosby’s case was largely covered at the pacing and framing that Cosby wanted, Egan said. He was known for being litigious and had control over his public image by threatening the media, she said.

But after a video of comedian Hannibal Buress calling Cosby a “rapist” went viral on Twitter in 2014, social media proved to be a platform that even ”America’s dad” couldn’t control. The clip spread and reignited scrutiny against Cosby. More women came forward with allegations against him, including model Janice Dickinson. He lost deals and projects with media companies. After a second trial, Cosby was convicted of sexual assault in April 2018.

“You could argue that [cancel culture] led to Bill Cosby’s conviction and prison sentence,” Egan said. “It has a completely positive impact.”

Cosby remains canceled — if the tweet he sent on Father's Day is any indication. The outrage on social media rang loud and clear.

Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who studies the intersection of digital media and race, gender and sexuality, described cancel culture as a “consumer advocacy activity” that helps spur awareness around celebrities and brands that have fallen into moral gray areas.

While reactions to Cosby could be said to represent one end of cancel culture's spectrum, in other instances, the effects are relatively short-lived.

YouTube makeup guru James Charles is a recent example of someone whose business bounced back from an extreme backlash. Days after a feud with another YouTuber, Charles lost millions of subscribers and stopped producing content. But after almost two months — including one 45-minute explanation video — Charles has regained the majority of his lost followers and has resumed creating videos.

From a marketing perspective, the way Charles handled it — the key being an apology that resonated with his followers — prevented his permanent loss of influencer status, said Krishna Subramanian, the co-founder of Captiv8, a marketing company that connects brands with influencers. Cancel culture is all about an audience trusting, or losing trust in, an influencer.

“Anytime an influencer does something to jeopardize that, and their audience creates backlash for something they’ve said or done, that starts to have a negative effect on their audience and that’s when a brand will walk away,” he said. “When you don’t address an issue head-on and an audience doesn’t believe your apology, that’s when things can spiral out of control.”

Cancel culture is set apart from similar boycotts because of who gets a say in the process, Nakamura said. The audience, as fans and followers, holds the power to determine who is canceled.

But while it’s proven to be effective in achieving its goal, media experts warn that it can at times oversimplify a systemic issue or blow situations out of proportion for the sake of clout online. Kate Eichhorn, an associate professor of culture and media at The New School in New York, said that cancel culture could also turn into cyberbullying.

That was the case when Nicole Curran, wife of Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob, was seen leaning over Beyoncé to chat with her husband, Jay-Z, during the NBA Finals in June. The Beyhive, Beyoncé’s loyal fan base, took the unamused look on Beyoncé’s face as a sign to attack Curran to the point where she deleted her Instagram after receiving death threats.

Even in real use, Eichhorn argues that it’s more of a “starting point” that, at best, is a means of focusing attention on an issue.

“If you think that social change can begin and end with cancel culture, then I think you’re kidding yourself,” she said. “It’s not to say that it can’t be used in strategic ways, but I think that its reach is limited. It’s not changing policies.”

One issue with cancel culture, Eichhorn said, is that it can often “take the filter further” on a conversation, leaving little room for rebuttal.

Gary agreed: “Reducing the complicated world to sound bites and headlines and twitter blasts and denunciation is not helpful.”