You’ve been canceled. Now what?
It’s every creator’s worst nightmare. Maybe a joke landed badly. Maybe you criticized something popular and a horde came for you. Maybe you honestly said something insulting and offensive.
It sometimes feels as if cancellation is both inevitable and career-ending. For burgeoning creators who are supposed to take risks and engage with a wide audience, the cancel culture debate is something they must think about on a daily basis.
What is cancel culture?
Cancel culture is an internet phenomenon in which the public holds a celebrity or person of perceived power accountable for a transgression by attempting to remove their influence. This can be done in a number of ways.
We’re all very familiar with seeing celebrities called out on social media—like Kanye West for antisemitic comments or Chrissy Teigen for past bullying behavior. Other tactics can be more covert like spamming campaigns or private harassment. One of the most egregious forms of harassment is called doxxing—when someone’s personal information including their home address is made public.
There are pros and cons to cancel culture. One of the main questions in the cancel culture debate is whether cancelation is productive—and opinions vary. According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, “58% of U.S. adults say in general, calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, while 38% say it is more likely to punish people who don’t deserve it.”
In a thoughtful segment, Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints on YouTube calls cancel culture the guillotine of our times: a way for the average person to achieve justice and have a voice but with the potential to become a grotesque spectacle.
How cancel culture can affect a creator
Calling out celebrities or people with power who commit transgressions is necessary and ethical. In many cases, a call-out can prevent them from committing more harm—especially regarding those who have admitted to sexual violence, workplace harassment, or other serious issues that often get swept under the rug. The #MeToo movement is a prime example of how sexual predators such as Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein began to face the consequences of their actions.
But what if you’re a relatively up-and-coming influencer or someone who doesn’t have a huge profile? Or what if you’re canceled over something that is not really that big of a deal? In other words, the response is arguably disproportionate to the act.
In January 2023, Mikayla Noguiera, a makeup artist known for their video tutorials faced cancellation after being accused of false advertising in her TikTok videos. Noguiera partnered with L’Oreal to promote their Telescopic Lift Washable Mascara. She was accused of faking the effects of the mascara in the video by putting on false eyelashes. “Mikayla Noguiera lashes” became a trending topic on TikTok, and numerous creators called her out for “misleading” viewers: “You aren’t gonna come on TikTok and insult our intelligence and just, like, think it’s gonna fly,” one viewer said in a video.”
As a result of this controversy and other stressors that come with being an influencer (including complaining about her job and getting called out for that, too) Noguiera said the scrutiny exacerbated her mental health issues.
In an interview with E! Noguiera said people “don’t necessarily see the bad that can come with [being an influencer]. Like the media attention and the negativity and there’s eyes on me 24/7. I feel like I have to be so careful about everything I do and say. So there is a lot of pressure.”
The psychological effects of cancel culture can be damaging. When you’re being canceled, you might think it’s the end of the world. There goes your brand, your identity—perhaps your financial livelihood. You’re definitely not feeling reflective. So what’s the point? Are there any pros to cancel culture?
Can cancel culture bring about social change?
It might seem sadistic to excessively publicly shame a relatively low-profile influencer like Noguiera—and that’s one of the major criticisms people have regarding cancel culture. But when it comes to people who wield real power, cancel culture can be a way to give agency to people who are marginalized or have been harmed. Cancel culture increases accountability and can provide social change. When done thoughtfully and responsibly, it can create teachable moments and help promote a better future. It can be especially effective regarding corporations.
Recently, Scholastic Books divided reading materials for school book fairs based on whether or not the books contained “controversial” content such as LGBTQ themes, gender, and race. Schools could choose to purchase the “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” collection separately. As a result, Scholastic was accused of censorship by advocacy groups such as the National Black Justice Coalition and Color of Change.
In the wake of criticism, Scholastic reflected on their decision, wrote a thoughtful apology that appeased a majority of critics, and said they would not continue with the “Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice” collection. “We will find an alternate way to get a greater range of books into the hands of children,” president of Scholastic Trade Publishing Ellie Berger wrote. “We pledge to stand with you as we redouble our efforts to combat the laws restricting children’s access to books.”
How to participate in cancel culture responsibly
Child psychologist and social media influencer Dr. Becky Kennedy deals with parent and child relationships, but her theory on “repair” would serve creators well—especially in the aftermath of a cancelation.
Repair focuses on reestablishing the relationship between parent and child after a conflict. The parent reflects on the incident, their feelings, and their child’s feelings and ultimately works to heal and reconnect the relationship: “Repair is really the act of going back to a moment that didn’t feel good, taking responsibility, reconnecting and making a plan for going forward,” Dr. Becky explains in an NPR interview.
The work can be difficult, but involves listening, communicating effectively, and admitting any wrongdoing. If a parent can do this with a small child (and they should), a creator can do this with their audience to reconnect and reestablish trust. (In this scenario, the creator or influencer would be the parent and the consumer would be the child, but you shouldn’t read that as a declaration that consumers are toddlers—at least most of them, anyway wink wink.)
Online, where everything is reduced to a certain number of characters and where information shifts and updates at lightning speed, cancel culture will continue to thrive for better or worse. The pros and cons of cancel culture will also continue to be debated. So it’s important to use our voices responsibly, to call out someone for fair reasons and in order to rectify a social wrong. This is how we can affect change in the world—not by adding to a pile-on.