Essay #1 – Cancel Culture and Democracy

CW: Sexual Assault
Samantha Patterson – 301343210


Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Youtube have become integral spaces that give everyday people the capacity to express themselves through a digital cyberspace. The primary use of social media can take on many forms and vary from person to person; while some may use their Instagram to update their followers on what they ate for breakfast, others may use their Instagram as a way of spreading awareness on social issues and trying to influence political discourse. Somewhere on the spectrum of sharing information in one’s cyber infrastructure lies the phenomenon of cancel culture. While cancel culture, or “call out culture,” can encourage action and accountability in cases where people might not otherwise receive it, the rampant use of cancel culture on social media has transformed into the antithesis of democratic dialogue.

The Weinstein case is an important example on how call out culture (or “cancel culture”) have stemmed from frustrations and powerlessness amongst a large group of people in a democratic society that recognize that their issues are not being taken seriously or dealt with. On February 24th, 2020, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape and a felony sex crime after a two year case and multiple allegations from over 80 women regarding his sexual misconduct throughout their career and experience with him. The initial allegations against Weinstein in 2017 were what gave the #MeToo Movement momentum, encouraging women (and men) everywhere to speak up about their personal experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault- especially in the workplace.  This snowball effect of people speaking up against can also be attributed as the “Weinstein Effect.”

In the wake of the #MeToo Movement, women and men around the world have spoken up against sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour by people in positions of power that would otherwise receive little-to-no discipline. Chanity Hudley states that “Cancelling is a way to acknowledge that you don’t have to have power to change structural inequality…But as an individual, you can still have power beyond measure.” Women have faced years of unfair structures and legal systems that work against their word, and the #MeToo movement has encouraged a timeline where believing survivors rightfully takes precedent. It is important to believe victims of sexual assault because statistically, one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime in the US alone. That being said, in many cases, the current tendency to believe accusations and spread them on social media- no questions asked- has manifested into a dangerous habit of ostracizing people (or “cancelling”)  without personally fact checking the story.

The manifestation of cancel culture has turned social media into a hunting ground where no one is truly safe, no matter how socially “woke” one may seem to be. It is very important to be aware of the weight of words, and while it is important to attempt to educate people on why their comments or actions were ignorant and harmful, cancel culture has created a timeline where there is hardly any room to make mistakes or grow from past ignorance. Call out culture encourages people to jump on the bandwagon on “cancelling” someone as a way of virtue signalling to avoid being perceived problematic themselves to their own peers. If anyone disagrees or stands up amidst the crowd to question the validity of certain claims, they run the risk of being cancelled themselves. As long as there is no harm being threatened, it is important to provide a space that encourages respectful dialogue and conversation regardless of one’s political standing, which would ideally be encouraged by the social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately, feeds like Twitter and Facebook use algorithms that predict what content users will enjoy and agree with, which creates an echo chamber of overwhelmingly similar viewpoints that are rarely challenged or fact checked.

Websites have guidelines and policies that aim to create an impartial platform for people of all backgrounds to use to express their opinions, as long as they do not violate the website’s terms of service. Hate Speech, Slander, Bullying, and Spam are some examples of ways that content can be flagged as inappropriate and against the terms of service. Platforms like Twitter can be faced with the task of determining whether content should be banned for violating terms of service- or protected in the name of free speech. When it comes to hate crimes and threatening content, platforms generally take a stance that align with the First Amendment in the United States- which excludes hate speech and violent threats.

As long as accounts are not engaging in behaviour that threatens the safety of another user, it is important to have different values showcased on all platforms to reflect an ideal democracy, where different values can coincide and people can make the personal choice on where to stand politically. Unfortunately, the extremely divisive political climate that the United States and Canada have entered has made it difficult for viewers to just absorb information objectively. According to an 2019 survey by the Pew Research Centre, over half of Americans get their news from social media sources, and furthermore, 8 out of 10 Americans recognize that the media has a large control over what content you are being broadcasted. People who view content and news online are also likely to be persuaded or not persuaded on an article based on what the source of the article identifies as. To encourage viewers to take in content and news more objectively, journalists should aim to cut the language that promotes bias and divisiveness such as “Republicans say… While Democrats say…”

Social media platforms have immense power in influencing social status, political discourse, and spreading information. While it can give people a platform to open dialogue with people all around the world, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook tends to tailor the content that the user expects to see, which creates echo chambers of biased sources and perspectives that people are getting their information from. Cancel culture has most popularly stemmed from the important #MeToo Movement, where survivors are encouraged to speak up against sexual harassment in order to fight power structures that protect people in positions of power-particularly men- from facing meaningful consequences. In cases where people are victims of harmful actions, it is important to stand in solidarity with them and support those who are working against oppressive power structures; however, cancel culture has manifested into the antithesis of meaningful democratic dialogue due to the impulsive nature to cancel anyone who is deemed problematic by the masses that are echoed in one’s social media timeline.


References

Elisa Shearer-Elizabeth Grieco (2019, October 2). Americans Are Vary of the Role Social Media Sites Play in Delivering News. Jounralism.org. https://www.journalism.org/2019/10/02/americans-are-wary-of-the-role-social-media-sites-play-in-delivering-the-news/

Nicole Chavez-Eric Levenson-Lauren Valle (2020, February 11). These are the Women who Testified Against Harvey Weinstein. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/23/us/witnesses-harvey-weinstein-trial/index.html

Nsikan Akpan (2018, September 3). How Seeing a Political Logo Can Impair Your Understanding of Facts. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/how-seeing-a-political-logo-can-impair-your-understanding-of-facts

Smith, S. G., Chen, J., Basile, K. C., Gilbert, L. K., Merrick, M. T., Patel, N., … Jain, A. (2017). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 state report. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportBook.pdf

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