Cancel culture. The expression has established itself in the hearts of anyone with a semblance of online presence. In the modern day, not even those off of social media are entirely safe from the clutches of online lynch mobs. What cancelling means is to magnify certain negative behavior while garnering support from likeminded online netizens—to boycott someone, and encourage others to do the same.
Naturally, celebrities, politicians, and otherwise famous individuals are the prime target owing to their constant media presence. These individuals in the limelight are what we consider to be idols, leaders and role models. Unfortunately, the greater one’s renown, the more vulnerable they are to cancel culture. Society champions high moral standards, respectful behaviour, humility and ethics, and it is no surprise that we hold our idols and leaders to the same standards.
That being said, social media’s power as a public authority cannot be underestimated. Even a recluse can be called out on the Internet through an anecdote, a photograph, or an offensive voice recording. Social media connects everyone, and offers them the power of anonymity. Not only does this make it easy to express opinion or condemn an individual, it propels a movement to gain strength in numbers. Name and shame is the name of the game, and it becomes startlingly easy to play in a sea of generic usernames and anonymous accounts.
Take the example of K-drama Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha’s lead actor, Kim Seon-ho. In October 2021, his career plummeted after an allegation that he coerced his ex-girlfriend into getting an abortion. He was removed from promotional activities, advertisements, and lost his endorsements, alongside being lambasted on social media. The rumor was circulated anonymously by his ex-girlfriend, and would later be proven untrue after Korean media outlet Dispatch dug up the truth—his then-girlfriend conjured the fake news out of spite.
The truth, however, received much less public attention than the prior scandal, which netizens eagerly jumped on to make an example out of Kim. Although most of his projects were restored after the truth was revealed, the actor’s reputation took an indelible hit. Netizens, though less after the revelation, continued to show distaste, lamenting about how he was no longer suited for romance productions because of his association with abortion. The ramifications of cancel culture often cannot be taken back—to be judicious is to be careful before jumping to conclusions.
On the Internet, there is a much greater inclination towards controversial news as opposed to truth or fact. For celebrities and other individuals with renown, this is especially true. We raise these individuals onto pedestals, naming them as paragons of moral virtue and socially laudable behavior. And then we seek to humanize them, to understand them as we do ourselves, with both the good and the bad. It is quite curious, how we diligently attempt to find fault in others and throw a fit when we get what we want.
Understanding it as an impulse of human imperfection makes the idea of cancel culture a bit more palatable. Unfortunately, there are moments when it is an unbearable echo chamber of negative sentiment.
The familiar local example of Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) only recently passed out of public scrutiny. Its co-founders, Ryan and Sylvia, were under constant textual assault from various online communities, including but not limited to social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Rumors flew rampant and insults were hurled. The fiasco unfurled as crew members started to support either co-founder. Accusations were publicly hurled from one to another—first Sylvia was a bad and abusive boss, then Ryan was flirtatious and unfaithful. It was all the rage for local netizens. Sides were being taken, incriminating private information was being sourced and revealed, and an alleged pornographic video of one owner in question was circulated, though it was later noted to be bogus.
The exposé was started by an anonymous Instagram account going by the handle “sgcickenrice”. The identity of the account’s owner was revealed by celebrity blogger Xiaxue to be a 20 year-old student, Brandon. Though he claimed to have stoked the fires to seek justice for his friends, employees of NOC whom were allegedly mistreated, no one can know if it was done with the purpose of clout chasing or self-entertainment. In this case, anonymity was almost enough to escape unharmed. More importantly, the incident alludes to the dangers of cancel culture. Peoples’ lives could, at any time, be ruined because others stand to gain.
Similar to Kim’s predicament, fake incendiary rumors and private information were being dug up and circulated for the purpose of ruining specific parties embroiled in the conflict. The overwhelming amount of information online, and the conveniently anonymous avenue that is social media, are a match made in the depths of misinformation hell. News is taken at face value, and shared with the mere click of a button. Opinions are formed almost instantaneously. The protection of facelessness and the lack of any immediate repercussions fuels netizens with the impetus to engage in accusatory online discussion.
Herein lies the greatest issue with cancel culture—there is no motivation to learn both sides of a story, because there are no consequences for one-sidedness. At a certain point, it matters less whether an individual is being cancelled for the sake of justice or society, and more that we let ourselves spiral into an unbridled and unchecked persecution crusade. The faceless have nothing to lose, so they can do as they please. What they please, if the mentioned events are any indication, can occasionally bring about the ruin of others, whether deserved or not.
Thankfully, it isn’t all bad. The power to cancel has sometimes proven useful in counteracting misdeeds in everyday life.
Popular Instagram media outlet WakeUpSingapore (WUSG) commands quite the polarizing follower base—they have had their fair share of both public flak and support for their content. Positive examples of these include their support for a victim of Islamophobia and safer transport for migrant workers. In the former, a taxi driver behaved disrespectfully towards a Muslim passenger by insulting her religion. The latter depicts hazardous transport conditions for migrant workers.
Activism accounts such as WUSG bring attention to and create conversation about areas where mainstream media will not. While they are not necessarily correct in all their opinions, it takes a spark to start a fire—WUSG exemplifies this spark, and illuminates important social issues that need addressing.
For instance, unsafe migrant worker transportation has been the status quo for decades. Corporations refuse humane treatment, and authorities are seemingly unbothered. The issue of unsafe transportation entered the spotlight on social media in mid-2021, after several lorry accidents occurred that involved injuries and even deaths of migrant workers. Accountability was demanded from the government and construction corporations. There were attempts by companies to ride the wave of goodwill, such as to display their existent safety measures or the creation of a digital platform to encourage the adoption of safe transport options.
That being said, social media movements have the tendency to fizzle out after a few months in favor of newer issues. Challenging powerful figures like the authorities or rich corporations also proves to be somewhat futile—the power lies in their hands, and very much less in ours. Nonetheless, while it may be difficult and even mistaken to “cancel” large corporations (ie. taxi or construction corporations), it is admirable how this “cancel spirit” brings people together to support fellow citizens in distress, or to fight for humane motivations. In spite of what little we can do, it is heartening to witness collective societal action against injustice, one step at a time.
There are two sides to every story, cancel culture included. Both good and bad outcomes of the “cancel spirit” exist, just as there are often two reasonable sides to each conflict. As we attempt to embody the good, to search for justice and weed out the bad, it is imperative to be prudent, fair, and thorough with our judgment.
In today’s context, you and I have much more power than we realize. With great power comes great responsibility (yes, shameless piggybacking on recent Spider-Man hype), and responsibly leading a social media charge entails a great deal of compassion and empathy. The negative connotation of cancel culture doesn’t arise from the expression itself, but the meaning that societal action has given it. Removing that negative connotation begins with putting oneself in the shoes of others, before deciding if they are too big or small. It begins with anyone, and everyone. It begins with you.