To Cancel or Not to Cancel: Navigating Accountability Online

By: Miranda Heinrich

If you use social media, you are probably familiar with the term “cancel culture.” This phrase was first popularized online by young people, especially Black Twitter. “Cancelling” refers to the cultural boycott that people take part in when they disagree with someone and no longer want to engage or support them. Recently, cancel culture has adopted a divisive tone, and just like many other controversial topics, politics has used the phrase “cancel culture” to create bipartisan attitudes. 

What does “cancel culture” actually do? Does it solve the problems it seeks to cancel or does it exacerbate the negativity?

A New York Times article, “The Long and Tortured History of Cancel Culture” explains that cancel culture has always been rooted in human history. People have always been blacklisted, gossiped about, scapegoated, and indicted—especially during cultural revolutions, which is certainly representative of our current time. 

Cancel culture has become a new way to publicly shame people who are deemed to have wronged, and it is often an effective way to call attention to those who have actually done something unacceptable and hold them accountable for their words and actions. 

Accountability is sometimes overshadowed by performative activism, which is a way that people demonstrate their “good virtue” by showing others online that they agree with a certain idea. Performative activism is less about making real change and more about preserving one’s own reputation and lessening guilt. People who engage in performative activism online largely have their own interests in mind and will cancel someone loudly and publicly with little thought to serve their own public image.

One popular area of cancel culture discourse is Twitter, which is known for spreading news and ideas quickly. Often, news articles and online journalists will cite Twitter when reporting about a  recent development or the latest information about someone or something. While Twitter has recently implemented its ability to flag tweets that may have “potentially harmful or misleading content,” it’s difficult for them to regulate consistently. 

According to a 2019 Pew Research, around 22% of U.S. adults use Twitter, a relatively small percentage compared to more popular social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook. Only about half of Twitter users actually participate regularly, and within that percentage, an even smaller amount (top 10% of tweeters) creates a vast majority (80%) of all tweets. 

Most content from Twitter is thus derived from about one to two percent of the U.S. adult population. Pew Research also proclaims that Twitter users tend to be slightly younger and more Democratic than the general American populace, which presents a biased sample of users on the platform. The drama and relevance of Twitter make it easy for these select people to decide who they want to cancel, and for what reason.

It’s easy for a Twitter user to fabricate a negative image of someone that is potentially inaccurate. Leaving out context, cutting videos to paint a misleading story, or manipulating images to serve a narrative can create a problem that doesn’t exist. 

Stan Twitter, a place where fans interact to talk about their idols, can be especially intense when it comes to canceling people who they see as competition to their own favorite person. Fans of one group will attempt to cancel a popular artist that they dislike. And fans of the targeted artist will retaliate with extremity, no matter the actual reality of the situation. 

Some fans go out of their way to paint false images, and other fans go out of their way to defend the ones they idolize without questioning whether or not that celebrity made a mistake. Both groups act in ways to serve themselves and their fan group. In an attempt to be politically correct and cancel someone, many people spread triggering words or images that can harm the people that they believe they are protecting. This type of cancel culture is mostly unconstructive and doesn’t lead to change but rather to fights between fandoms.

There have been positive outcomes from cancel culture, including the demand for greater accountability and real change. This is especially prevalent when companies make mistakes within their workplace or their products, which will spark a huge reaction from the public. 

Most companies and famous people with brands understand that their reputation is vastly important for the continuation of their success. When they are “canceled,” they are forced to take real steps to change their behavior and actions. Though some of these apologies and changes might seem disingenuous, they are still stepping in the right direction. 

These messages also signal to the public a moral standpoint and reinforce the right way for society to act. Moral concerns held by current populations should be recognized and respected. The more people speak up, the more others can do the same and push for change in the right direction. Social media has allowed everyone to voice an opinion to a wide audience quickly and directly. The importance of the public voice is indisputable.

That being said, there are still problems with the way cancel culture is carried out online. A large part of the failure is what happens after the “canceling.” Genuine, reparative, and thoughtful apologies are still not accepted by many people who initially canceled the person or organization. People will continue to reject them either due to stubbornness or a belief that the apology was not enough to undo damages. 

While certain actions are inexcusable and cannot be forgiven even after an apology, not forgiving people at all means there is no chance for anyone to grow and mature from their mistakes. This creates a space where people are held to an impossibly high standard of political correctness and perfection that is unattainable. 

Conversely, canceling is often temporary—people will be angry for a week or so before the noise dies down, and the news fades. The accountability only survives as long as people are talking, and most people do not continue to follow-up on companies or people who err. A large problem with cancel culture is its inability to actually topple the systems it seeks to destroy. For example, there was an online outrage directed towards “Harry Potter,” author J.K. Rowling, for a series of transphobic and racist comments.

Despite the clear disapproval from many users on social media, Rowling refused to apologize for her words. However, she still continues to sell tons of books. Some people still reprimand Rowling for her inexcusable behavior, but not enough people are consistently calling her out for it to actually make a lasting impact on her actions. Without any consequence, J.K. Rowling sees little reason to examine her own conduct. 

Overall, cancel culture has its benefits and its flaws. The line between true accountability and performative activism is a fine one. Senseless hating on the Internet can also be disguised as canceling (which can cause damage to real calls for change). Used well, cancel culture can push for positive gradual change, but used excessively, cancel culture can promote an environment of toxicity. Cancel culture, when called for, is an important tool…but use it wisely.


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