Cancel Culture And The Viral Mob

There are consequences to bad behavior. But how do we not let cancel culture get out of control?

Cancel Culture
Photo: Jeffrey Czum from Pexels.

by Jana Godshall

You’re canceled. I don’t want anything to do with you anymore. I don’t have all the facts, but a little algorithm on social media told me to hate you. And I believe everything the internet tells me to. 

This is not a hit job on social media. I rely on social media.  Many of you are reading this because of social media.  I’m a daily user, myself. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m addicted. I don’t need it, but yeah, when I’m passing time or promoting something, I like it. I also like to think of Instagram as a photo journal that – if we haven’t killed earth in forty years – I can one day look back on my photos and say, “Oh honey, remember when I didn’t have hair on my chin? And remember this tiramisu we ate?” I mean, this is why we take selfies and pictures of our food, so we can eventually look back on them, right?   

If social media were only used for good, we would have endless puppy collages and videos of teenagers helping grannies cross the street. We would be reunited with old friends and keep in touch with loved ones overseas. We use these apps and essentially watch people grow up. We are kept up to date with big life events, and in this aspect, social media is great. We don’t have to feel so far away from people. But, and it’s a big but – there’s all the dark and really icky stuff that happens with social media and because of it. Part of social media has developed into a breeding ground for hate. Are we that surprised, though? Social media was essentially created by an insecure boy who wanted to rank college girls based on their looks. If anything, we should cancel the program that was invented to pin females against each other based on superficialities. 

Social media has the ability to tear people apart. It can ruin a person. People can be cruel, like in an insane way. So while on one hand, we have social media allowing an influencer to raise millions of dollars to save Afghan refugees, social media also provides platforms for people to use racial slurs and hate speech.  There are viral mobs using hate speech and slander on people who don’t deserve it.   

But is this a commentary on the culture we created? The culture we now live in? Or is the mirror just bigger, so we can see more of us? Have we always been this way – so ready to take down anyone and jump down their throat for believing or acting differently than we do? I don’t want to take away the power of social media. It’s an influential tool. It affects us. Because of it, we hear from more people, and it exposes how much hate we still have in this world. 

Social media can, of course, also inform and explain social dilemmas and injustices as well as out racism, xenophobia, homophobia and basically, every phobia in the book. But you know better than me, for every ying there must be the yang, so we have these platforms used to not only expose something like racism, but on the other side, ignite it. People band together and will take out anyone who disagrees with them.  

Welcome to the viral mob era. The time of (online) trolls: the haters that love to bring others down.  There are so many viral mob stories gone wrong that it’s hard to choose one to highlight, but I think before we can even discuss one in particular, I want to talk about the lack of basic human decency these hate mobs have. They are so quick to judge. With clickbait details being so easily accessible with five second videos, rarely do people take the time to get all the facts or information. We read a headline, and make snap decisions. And then take it a step further and comment. People get vicious. People make threats, death threats. Like WTF?!  Every time I see a hateful comment, I’d like to send that person a care package of CBD oil and Doritos, with a little note attached: why you so mad, boo

I don’t expect the people who send death threats via Instagram to ever reach a level of zen, but can they stop foaming at the mouth over a mask mandate or J Lo’s dance moves? And let me be clear, I’m not talking about hate crimes or assaults. Seeing hate crimes and hate speech is going to get you upset, as it should. But getting so mad because some social media influencer did something hypocritical or the government wanting children to wear masks at school to stop the spreading of a pandemic shouldn’t be the reason for violent threats. You understand that a social media influencer is not an expert. At the end of the day, they’re just a human and this human could be educated or not so let’s not expect them to always be reliable. And a school that has a mask mandate isn’t out “to get” your kids. They are just trying to figure out how to keep everyone safe. There’s not some ploy underneath this tactic. 

It doesn’t mean you have to like it. You’re entitled not to like things. You are allowed to think a skirt is too short. You’re allowed to wish that Brad Pitt was dating you because for sure if he met you he would fall in love with you. But you don’t have to hate his girlfriend or call her ugly or call someone wearing a short skirt a slut. These are things that are hurtful. And I feel like this is stuff parents teach their children. Were you absent that day when the world was explaining decency? 

Listen, I don’t like that when I eat mozzarella my stomach hurts afterwards, but I’m not threatening to burn down any mozzarella factories. Can you imagine if I started an Instagram page and then all my fellow lactose intolerant comrades joined in, and we started canceling mozzarella because despite its deliciousness, it never warned us properly that it could make our stomachs hurt? It’s so unfair! How dare mozzarella! What if ever time I saw an ad for cheese I commented on how stupid and ugly the cheese was and that it should die. Seems ridiculous when we narrow it down to cheese, right? 

Oh, remember the glory days when the worst part of social media was duck lips? Everyone believed they needed the Kylie Jenner makeover? Our culture slams someone for not being cute, but then slams the same person for getting a procedure to make them cuter. We promote everyone to be themselves, but yet we are the same people who will say to our friends or partners, “You’re not really wearing that, are you?” You mean, the outfit I just put on? No, no. Of course not.  We have this hypocritical nature within us. We want people to be proud of who they are, but you know, as long as they keep it to themselves. We want people to be happy in their own skin, but please don’t show us too much skin. We want equality, but only in how we define equality. And if you define equality in a way that we don’t like, we’re going to threaten you until you cry. Or if you now believe in equality but ten years ago you were ignorant to it, we’re going to ruin your life. Why are we out for blood?

The negative impacts of social media have escalated from a den of insecurity and bikini pics to a den of hate speech and death threats. And with the use of social media we can cancel people we deem cancel-able in a much bigger way than ever before. At first, this aspect of “canceling” someone – which is more an American and British phenomenon – seemed perhaps justifiable. Someone who committed assaults or crimes was canceled, meaning society was done with him/her/them. For example, canceling Bill Cosby after assaulting hundreds of women was fair. If we were only able to continue to cancel the real bad guys, then this would work. And by bad guys, I mean those who commit assaults or hate crimes or use hate speech; to me, these are bad guys. But it’s not that simple because someone else has a different opinion of what a bad guy is. Someone could be upset because the person they were seeing never called them back. Is this hurtful? Sure. But it doesn’t make someone a bad guy. Because now, we can go public and shame a person for something as minuscule as not liking us. Aren’t we taking this too far? 

And because American and British cultures have such an imprint on the rest of the world, are other countries (and cultures) following suit? Is everyone going on a cancel-culture craze? I spoke with Valentina Griner, an Italian graphic artist who has worked in film development and production for over a decade in Italy. She’s witnessed the ‘cancel’ craze and hysteria of viral mobs. She understands it as more of an American term and sees it as something that is happening a lot in the U.S., but she believes it’s happening in Italy too, just maybe not as frequently seen on Instagram. “The problem is real. It happens on social media, and the newspapers and media are riding the phenomenon because they need clickbait content. Maybe now they are beginning to discuss the issue, but the truth is, that it is more useful to use daily polemics to gain publicity. The impression is that the media wants to follow the evolution of social media and try to be on trend.”  This could mean that Italy isn’t trying to rise above the negative impact of social media, but rather just doesn’t have the bandwidth or the social media footprint that the UK and America have. Does this mean other countries’ media outlets will join in on cancel-culture to be relevant? (@valentina.griner)

What is the solution? People should be held accountable in the same way. If you assault someone or partake in a hate crime, you should be held accountable no matter who you are. If you are a judge, and are exposed for using racial slurs, you should step down from your position because your opinions (rulings) cannot be trusted. If you are a politician and use slanderous remarks or assault others, you have to step down from your position because how can you be the voice of the people. If you are a performer and assault someone, people may want to stop paying to watch you perform. These are consequences to bad behavior and an essence of being canceled.  But how do we not let cancel-culture get out of control? We can’t cancel someone for having an affair or for dancing provocatively. We can’t cancel people for doing something just because we wouldn’t do it. And we certainly can’t slander, shame or threaten people for these things either. 

I decided to get an insider’s opinion. I called Jane Owen with Jane Owen Public Relations. She has offices all over the word, and she’s been working in the the biz for over twenty years. She’s had her fair share of managing bullying, and she’s witnessed it evolve from print media to social media over the years.  “The most consistent part of looking after famous people, especially newly famous ones, is to help them deal with the inevitable bullying. No matter who they are on TV there will be a swarm of people who hate them for no real reason and feel that because they are in the public eye that this makes them non-human public property that they can say absolutely anything cruel to with zero consequences.”

I went on to ask her thoughts on cancel-culture, “In recent years, I’ve seen the hatred and bullying evolve into that [cancel culture] –  just like Trump’s presidency gave a free reign to racists and misogynists to come out and do their worst because now it’s ‘allowed.’ The other side decided that they could turn up their judgment and superiority and decide that famous people were no longer allowed to step even a fraction out of line or do or say anything that could be remotely misleading towards anything ‘they’ as a mob decided was wrong. There’s obviously been a lot of disgusting people that were very justly ‘canceled,’ but there’s also been a rise in online bullying, using fear inducing tactics. 

Even the people that have spoken out about mistreatment by men in the post me-too era are being harassed online. My client, Paige Lorenze, who spoke out about her ex-boyfriend Armie Hammer and his abuse of her, is still to this day harassed with death threats and bullied by people on her social media, just for telling the truth. The texts she’s shown me are horrendous, and it’s very depressing to see how much cruelty there is and how we live now in a world that encourages it.” (@janeowenpr)

And Jane is right. Sometimes it seems that we live in a society that encourages the viral mob of online bullying. And now, we’re not just publicly shaming celebs, everyone is at risk. People should be allowed to expose harassment (they’ve endured) without fear of public scrutiny. Hello, the Dark Ages called, they want their closed-minded views back. 

As a final thought, I’ll use the optimal word freedom since everyone is obsessed with losing it. People should be free to have bad days. People should feel free to get frustrated. Be free to be confused about who they like. Be free to change their minds about issues. Be free without the fear of online shaming. We don’t need to be publicly shamed for being different. Or believing differently or loving differently. I mean, guys, otherwise we are going to really quickly evolve into that episode of Black Mirror (“Nosedive”) where everyone is plastic and smiling just to make it through the day because they don’t want to expose how they really feel. 

People since the beginning of cavemen times have always looked different, prayed differently, loved differently, eaten differently. It’s bizarre that this is still something we have to explain, and we certainly don’t need mobs of people shaming us and threatening us because of these differences. On the other side of the coin, if someone messes up, can we help them by educating them instead of slandering them?  I think we need to collectively go back and watch Bambi and be reminded by Thumper’s mother’s wisdom, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” 

And if you disagree with anything I’ve said, that’s okay. Please just don’t DM me with death threats or tell me how stupid I am. We’re human. We are already hard enough on ourselves. We don’t need any extra help. @ciaojanaciao