How Real Is "Cancel Culture?"
Have you ever felt uncomfortable sharing your opinion on politics — whether online or with friends? If so, you’re not alone. Americans are becoming increasingly cautious about sharing their political opinions. In a recent survey, 62 percent of Americans described today’s political climate as one that “prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” Further, this was not a sentiment limited to one side of the political spectrum. More than half of liberals and three-quarters of conservatives are hesitant to share some of their political views. Both of these percentages have risen in recent years, in tandem with the rising debate over so-called “cancel culture.”
But it’s not just everyday Americans that feel limited in their speech. In July 2020, 153 notable academics, authors, journalists, and others published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine. In the letter, signees ranging from liberal philosopher Noam Chomsky to conservative author David Brooks voice their concern over “cancel culture” and the preservation of free speech. While the extent to which “cancel culture” endangers free speech is debated, the letter demonstrates that some academics and media professionals consider it a serious threat.
This prompts several key questions: Does the media perpetuate the existence of “cancel culture?” What impact might this have on public discourse? In this week's analysis, The Factual reviews 38 articles from 25 sources across the political spectrum to explore the concept of “cancel culture” and how it is reported in the media.
What Is “Cancel Culture?”
The definition isn’t simple, partially due to a growing contrast between the term’s literal definition and its use in politics and media. “Cancel culture” can be defined as a campaign of public shaming (conducted via social media, news, or in-person confrontation) such that the subject of the “cancellation” suffers devastating personal, monetary, or political consequences that appear to be disproportionate to the subject's offense.
Often, individuals or businesses will cut ties with the “cancelled” person in rapid succession and across industries. This creates a cascading effect where each person or business that cuts ties with the subject of the cancellation puts more pressure on those who have yet to do so. A person may become a candidate for cancellation if they are alleged to have done something so negative that they should not be afforded an opportunity for redemption. Central to the debate around “cancel culture” is this subjective threshold for what is worthy of “cancellation.”
An Uneven Standard
There is no central authority that issues “cancellations” and oversees appeals. Instead, an amorphous group of internet users, politicians, and media professionals contribute to “cancel culture” on the basis of what happens to be in front of them. This produces a highly stratified environment where backlash is sometimes dispassionately cruel and at other times extremely exaggerated. To see examples of the various cut-offs for what merits "cancellation", check out this running database.
The term "cancel culture" has seen renewed debate in response to the Twitter ban of former President Trump. However, President Trump’s Twitter ban relates to violations of the platform’s terms of service and requires a more specific examination than the general “cancel culture” phenomenon.
Examples Of “Cancel Culture”
Legitimate examples of “cancel culture” gone overboard often stem from false inferences. One such example occurred when a data scientist, David Shor, retweeted a report regarding the effectiveness of various protest methods in regards to achieving policy change. This report was discussed by many as protests grew in response to the killing of George Floyd. The data scientist was fired from his job as some equated his sharing of the report to condemnation of protests taking place. However, the report was originally authored by Omar Wasow, a Black man with a PhD in African American Studies. The original report was an analysis meant to gauge the effectiveness of protest methods in the face of a hostile majority, not to comment on their justifications or level of cost. Jennifer Brea, Omar Wasow’s wife, recently took to Twitter to describe her surprise at what had occurred. A collective perception of offense combined with inadequate fact-checking, resulting in the loss of a person’s livelihood.
Another recent example of overzealous cancellation occurred when Lauren Wolfe, a now-former editor for the New York Times tweeted that she had “chills” watching then President-elect Biden’s plane land for inauguration. The backlash, largely from right-leaning outlets such as the Daily Mail, New York Post, and Fox News, resulted in the New York Times cancelling Ms. Wolfe’s contract. Importantly, these outlets did not explicitly call for Wolfe to be fired. Instead, they magnified ridicule of the New York Times and suggested that she was emblematic of the newspaper’s left-leaning bias. While this was not a call for her to lose her job, it did incentivize the paper to end her employment in pursuit of impartiality. Further, Ms. Wolfe has stated that she has received threats and, due to the loss of her job, is now in a precarious financial position.
In this scenario, the pressure from traditionally right-leaning outlets stands in stark contrast to their repeated condemnation of "cancel culture." Still, it was the left-leaning New York Times, which has published pieces minimizing the effects of "cancel culture," that ultimately fired her. In this way, Lauren Wolfe became the victim of hypocrisy from media across the political spectrum.
The Politicization Of The Term
In contrast to the above, some politicians, such as Senator Josh Hawley, have embraced the media as an outlet for his repetitive claims of “cancel culture” occurring. Last year, he was asserting that the removal of Confederate statues was "cancel culture." These days, he claims that he himself is being “cancelled” over his support for contesting President Biden’s electoral victory. In an essay published by the New York Post, he emulates the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan in likening “cancel culture” to the state of free speech in China. The strength of this comparison is debatable, as the U.S. ranks 45th in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index whereas China ranks 177th.
More importantly, Senator Hawley still has his job and key committee assignments, a new book deal, and access to a platform read by millions. Still, articles published in the right-leaning Daily Mail and New York Post focus on online outrage in response to his actions rather than the lack of actual consequences that seem to be occurring. This selective framing is a key way in which media publications perpetuate a malleable definition of “cancel culture.”
How "Cancel Culture" Is Reported
Media outlets and publishers that align with the political left or right have palpable differences in how they report incidents of alleged “cancel culture.” Often, however, key perspectives originate from, or are amplified by, elected leaders. For example, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz likened the impeachment of former President Trump to “cancel culture.” Across the aisle, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has minimized fears of "cancel culture" as being overblown, citing conservatives' own efforts to get her “cancelled.”
In the media sphere, this political divide is mirrored by pieces in right-leaning outlets that paint "cancel culture" as a legitimate threat to free speech. There are many examples of such pieces. In one instance, former Republican Senator Orrin Hatch utilized the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Section to equate “cancel culture” to the deadly Spanish Inquisition. Going even further, right-leaning publications sometimes claim that this behavior was deliberately unleashed by “the Left” to silence political opposition.
Meanwhile, the archetypal left-leaning outlet more frequently minimizes fears over "cancel culture" by suggesting that the incident involves justified repercussions or identifying the ways in which a “cancelled” individual maintained their fanbase. This piece published in the left-leaning New Republic minimizes fears over “cancel culture” by regarding it as “ordinary public disfavor voiced by ordinary people.” Similarly, the New Statesman published an article bluntly titled “‘Cancel culture’ does not exist.”
Indeed, there are few voices who describe "cancel culture" as a legitimate threat to individuals without fame or power but not an existential threat to free speech. One person who promotes this description is Phoebe Maltz Bovy, a signatory of the Harper’s letter. Weeks after signing, she came to realize a central paradox: “the loudest voices on the topic are those with careers as contrarians.” While Ms. Maltz Bovy had signed the letter to protect the everyday author, she later realized she may have also been defending controversial elites.
Striking the Right Balance
By identifying the haphazard way in which claims of “cancel culture” are promoted in the media, one can more cautiously approach the topic. Readers must demand specific information from stories of this nature and seek out alternate perspectives on the same topic. As the sheer quantity of daily media continues to grow, ensuring balance and quality in our news diet is essential.
As society becomes more partisan, it's important for all of us to engage in respectful, good-faith discussion across political lines. When moderate Americans are afraid to voice their views, it allows those who operate at political extremes—often in bad-faith—to dominate the discussion.
This appendix lists all 36 articles from 25 sources across the political spectrum used to inform the findings of this article and how the articles scored according to The Factual's credibility algorithm. To learn more, read our How It Works page.
Written by Brady Africk
Brady is a researcher, writer, and programmer. His interest in both politics and technology have led to projects ranging from public policy proposals to Twitter bots. With a background in political and computer science from the University of Pennsylvania, Brady specializes in topics that deal with the intersection of tech and policy.