“Cancel culture” is back in the news thanks to President Barack Obama’s recent comments on the standards of “wokeness” among young people and in social media. As people argue cancel cultures merits and causes, they invariably point to generational or political factors, such as the unique sensitivity of young people or a particularly offensive political atmosphere. However, these explanations miss the mark. To fully explain the phenomenon of cancel culture we have to look at the structure of social media.

Young people calling out harmful speech, demanding resignations and organizing boycotts is not new. What has changed is the means by which they do these things. Before the growth of social media, people were limited to paper petitions, in-person protests and newspaper op-eds for spreading their message and taking action. Now, anybody can log on to Twitter and send out a tweet, and if things go right, it will go viral, potentially reaching millions of people. This is incredibly powerful. It is what has driven movements like the Arab Spring and #MeToo. It has contributed to genocide in Myanmar and mob violence in India. Analyzing cancel culture requires examining the powerful mechanisms that drive social media.

Often, it seems as if cancel culture takes place in another universe. Typically, I don’t know the cancelers or the canceled personally, but I see their content online and feel the effects of their interactions offline. How does a small group of people on the internet dominate the national conversation and have real effects on people’s lives? Through platforms that encourage virality, engagement and extremity. 

Social media companies’ primary source of revenue is advertisements. More user engagement allows more ads to be sold. Because of this, companies focus on driving user engagement, searching for ways to grab users’ attention and hold it for as long as possible. And what content drives the most engagement? Studies find that negative, divisive emotions such as fear and anger do. So, thanks to the structure of social media, posts that provoke these emotions content related to cancel culture certainly fits this category rise naturally. Additionally, the emphasis on virality leads to features that quickly amplify and distribute content. Twitter trends, the Facebook news feed, the YouTube recommender system and the Instagram discover page simultaneously push viral content to keep you engaged and use you to make content more viral, a positive feedback loop that circulates posts quickly and widely. This is how a disproportionate amount of content related to cancel culture ends up in our feeds, on our minds and in our conversations.

Without social media, cancel culture would manifest itself as relatively normal generational activism. There would be good and bad, overzealousness and moral clarity. All still exist today, but now they exist alongside the democratization of information, the magnification of shame, the anonymity of social media and the growth of permanent, searchable digital records of our lives. This emboldens some people and makes others feel vulnerable, leading to aggression, defensiveness and self-censorship, fueling the influence of cancel culture as a concept and as an agent of change.

But what about the good, the speaking of truth to power, the legitimate criticism that is often labeled derogatively as cancel culture by those threatened by it? Doesn’t social media empower movements like #MeToo? Doesn’t it give a voice and a platform to the marginalized? Yes. This is the paradox of social media — its vast capacity for both good and bad. Implementing technology that deemphasizes virality or engagement could undermine important social movements and mute constructive criticism. Yet, maintaining the status quo is clearly not desirable either. Does the answer lie beyond technology? Education, morality and art — do these institutions have the answer? 

It seems to me that the latter, non-technical institutions do indeed hold the answer, if there is one. Social media companies have no incentive to change the mechanisms driving their platforms — virality and engagement are key to their bottom line. Additionally, it’s not clear we should want them to. Many of the same features that drive the negative parts of cancel culture give a platform to marginalized people, and are an important tool for social movements. This is where non-technical factors come in. Education, morality and art all have the ability to change people’s minds. For example, Mary Gaitskill’s novella “This is pleasure” explores cancel culture and #MeToo from multiple perspectives, producing a complicated, nuanced piece that is thought-provoking and demands moderation from readers. Theoretically, art like “This is pleasure” could inspire meaningful, widespread changes, making people less likely to use social media for gratuitous denunciation and encouraging less charged, more offline engagement. I’m not particularly optimistic about such a transformation, though. It would require a collective awakening that seems impossible in today’s highly polarized environment where more pressing issues such as climate change fail to garner a similar response. I guess we can hope though.

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci can be reached at chandrn@umich.edu.

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