Pay No Attention to the Mob Behind the Curtain: On Cancel Culture

They almost got me.

I started noticing something that disturbed me about the way people were interacting online last spring. Now, to be clear, people have been shitty to each other online since time immemorial. And around the time of the 2016 Presidential election, that online shittiness reached a fever pitch that has extended into one long, continuous, ear-piecing screech that we cannot seem to escape. But what I was seeing wasn’t that, because the world is a terrible place and I have become so used to the screech that I barely hear it anymore. What I was seeing was happening in communities I was in, these little pockets of the internet that seemed like safe harbors. Where we talked about liberation and revolution and shared resources with each other and had hard conversations respectfully. The tone changed. It became rigid, unyielding, hostile, moralistic. And everyone was in overdrive, hypervigilant, keyed up. We were in the midst of a pandemic. There was a global uprising for Black lives after the murder of George Floyd. The Presidential election was under way, and predictably nasty. 2020 was so jam-packed with trauma, pain, death, and vitriol that most of us forgot that Trump was impeached in 2020. In these small communities, it felt like there were two groups. One group opened apps hell-bent on finding someone committing a minor infraction so they could take their anger out on them, and the other spent their time wringing their hands worried about committing minor infractions.

Then a word started coming up that seemed to describe it. “Cancel culture.” Was that what I was seeing? Was that the thing that was off? Was that an accurate description of the friction I was seeing?

As it turns out, no. “Cancel culture” is not real, mean comments in Facebook groups were not the real problem. But the people sharing anti-cancel culture rhetoric almost got me.

The Collapsing of Celebrity

Social media has fundamentally changed who is considered a “public figure.”

Once upon a time, it was very easy to tell the difference between a public figure and a private citizen. Public figures were on TV. Public figures were actors, politicians, talk show hosts, musicians and writers and artists. They were famous, and consequently usually rich. The rest of us were mere mortals who watched public figures do famous people stuff. The line between these two groups was pretty clear: either you were in People Magazine, or you bought and read People Magazine. Pretty easy, right?

Now, there are still celebrities, but there are also individuals who exist in between “celebrity” and “mere mortal.” They have personal brands and partnerships with businesses. They have audiences and create content. They monetize their faces, their personhood. But they’re not celebrities. They’re “influencers.” Sometimes influencers are also celebrities, but most of the time these are people who are only famous to a small corner of the internet. They have a blue check next to their social media handles and thousands (sometimes millions) of followers. They cultivate a sense of intimacy with large groups of people. Through social media, I have seen influencers’ bathrooms, underwear, love interests, pets, and have listened to them talk so often that I feel like I know them… even though we’ve never met. We form parasocial relationships with people on social media, because even though they are strangers to us, they feel closer to our level than actual celebrities. Scarlett Johansson or Lady Gaga are not going to respond to your DMs. But your favorite Instagram personality might.

Celebrities know that people are watching them. They understand that they’re famous. They have handlers, who prep them on talking points for interviews and make sure they don’t make headlines with an ill-advised, off-the-cuff remark. In the Before Times, many of them would frequently have experiences where they stood in front of a crowd and walked down a red carpet and were simply observed. They are aware that they have an audience. Any time they speak, step out in public, go to a restaurant, grab a Frappucino in L.A., they are being watched.

But social media is a solitary experience. You open up an app on your phone and post or scroll. Influencers typically aren’t talking to a crowd; they are talking to a camera, or their phone, their Black Mirror. They don’t talk to the press, they tap some words into an app and push a button. They are both keenly aware of their audience, and completely removed from it. They may call their audience a “community,” but they don’t know most of the people in it. Their followers are not people, they are metrics, followers, engagement. And because they are so far removed from their audience, they may not even consider that they are public figures and observed in a way not unlike celebrities are. But typically there are no handlers feeding them talking points or keeping them from making a misstep, because accessing their audience is as simple as opening an app.

Where’s the line, though? How many followers do you need to be a public figure? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? What are the expectations? Do they change based on the number of followers? What are the rules? Does having a large platform come with responsibility to their audience, society, the world at large?

Social media has created this new category of “public figure,” but no one really knows how it works, including the influencers themselves. And that creates a lot of the friction that is often attributed to “cancel culture.” There is a public figure, with an audience, who does not consider themselves to be a public figure but a private citizen. So, when they screw up and say something that upsets their audience, their audience usually has a direct line to express their feelings to them and the onslaught feels overwhelming and unfair. After all, the influencer doesn’t even know these people. “i’m just a regular person! I woke up and my phone was exploding with notifications!” And so they get defensive and double-down, which further upsets their audience. If it’s a big enough transgression (and Twitter is designed for this, which is why that platform produces so many Villains of the Day), people who are not part of the influencer’s audience take up arms and join in. But is the influencer the victim of a public mob, or is the situation a result of their unique circumstance and the platforms they use to reach their audiences?

“Cancel culture” offers a simple solution: Yes, that person is the victim of an online mob and is treated unfairly. But I think the reality is more nuanced than that. “Cancel culture” flattens the dynamics, puts people in binary categories of “cancel culture victim” and “blood-thirsty mob.” Which conveniently allows the “canceled” to skirt the active role they played in cultivating this dynamic and their unique situation, and allows us to ignore the fact that… sometimes the “mob” has a fuckin’ point, and it’s reasonable and healthy for groups to call out bad behavior. That friction, between being a public figure and being a private citizen, often ignites a “cancelation.”

The Illusion of a “Cancelation”

Because “cancel culture” offers us such a clear binary view of these situations, it’s easy to zoom out and see all “cancelations” as predictable, following a script, similar to one another. But when you look at individual “cancelations,” they’re all remarkably different.

So, let’s compare and contrast some recent examples of “cancel culture” at work. Let’s start with Chrissy Teigen. Chrissy Teigen would be classified as a celebrity, but she has an odd sort of celebrity. She’s a model, or once was. She is married to a famous musician, John Legend. She has cookbooks and a cookware line and a lifestyle brand. But she is a celebrity because of her social media presence. She is famous for being sassy on Twitter. And she’s famous for being a meme.

In the summer of 2021, the public learned that Chrissy’s social media has (or had) a dark side. She has sent harassing DMs to Courtney Stodden. She told Stodden, who was a teenager at the time, to kill themselves. This was trending on social media, picked up by the mainstream press, and reported on the evening news. Chrissy went dark on social media for a few months, and then embarked on the Celebrity Apology Tour, publishing a Medium essay that started off with saying that she’d been “humbled.” Shortly after that, she joked (maybe?) about being part of the “canceled club.”

So, that’s the sequence of events: The public learned that an adult woman had harassed a teenager (Courtney Stodden) on social media, then other accounts of her behavior toward others surfaced, the media reported on it, the public reacted, Chrissy Teigen stopped posting on social media for a little while, and then apologized and started talking about being “canceled.”

An interesting thing about Chrissy is that she played a role in another “cancelation” that happened in May 2020, though she was a tertiary player in that situation. Alison Roman is a food writer and celebrity chef who, like Chrissy, has cookbooks and lots of fans on social media. She was known for her work with the New York Times, where the shared recipes that became ubiquitous. “The Stew.” “The Cookies.” “The Pasta.” (The shallot pasta, incidentally, is fantastic.) For unknown reasons (probably because she was not quite famous enough to have a bunch of handlers keeping her in line), Alison Roman gave an interview where she decided to trash Chrissy Teigen and (weirdly) Marie Kondo. Her complaint, in an interview to promote a line of products with her name on them that she stood to profit from, was that Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo were profiteers and selling consumer goods with their names on them. There was a backlash on social media, and Chrissy responded, apparently hurt. It’s worth noting that Alison Roman had come under fire before, for the way she’s appropriated other cultures’ cuisine. So, there were lots of folks who already didn’t like her. Alison went away for a little bit, did the apology tour, left her plum gig at the New York Times, and then started her own YouTube channel.

The things that connect these “cancelations” are pretty broad: Chrissy Teigen and Alison Roman are women. Twitter played a big role in facilitating the careers of both women, as well as the backlash. They both have cookbooks. And they stopped posting online for little awhile, then came back and apologized. They are also both perfectly fine after being canceled.

But beyond those things, these situations are extremely specific and unique. Chrissy Teigen’s behavior was in the past, and done in private. Her private messages and behavior coming to light was what kickstarted the “cancelation.” Alison Roman’s offending behavior was done in a magazine interview, and she did not directly contact, interact with, or bully Teigen. Chrissy privately told a teenager to kill themselves, Alison stuck her foot in her mouth in an interview and didn’t understand the racial dynamics of a white woman specifically choosing to criticize two Asian women in a sea of white women with “lifestyle brands.” Neither the behavior and incidents leading to their “cancelations,” the manner of “cancelation,” audiences, or dynamics are comparable.

And the thing is — Chrissy Teigen and Alison Roman are probably the most similar “cancelations” in recent memory. When you consider public figures lumped together as victims of “cancel culture,” it gets even harder to argue that these situations are all related to the same phenomenon. J.K. Rowling’s “cancelation” for repeated transphobic remarks is not remotely similar to, say, Logan Paul getting “canceled” for filming and uploading a video to YouTube with a dead body in Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mt. Fuji known as the “suicide forest.” Ellen Degeneres being “canceled” after reports surfaced that she’d created a hostile work environment and Natalie Wynn’s “cancelation” for choosing to feature trans porn star Buck Angel in a short voiceover in one of her videos are demonstrably not alike. Lindsay Ellis’ “cancelation” for an ill-conceived tweet saying “Raya and the Last Dragon” was similar to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” that some people thought was anti-Asian, during a week with multiple hate crimes against AAPI women, is not like Hilaria Baldwin being “canceled” for bizarrely pretending to be Spanish. “Bean Dad,” a podcast host who went viral for a series of tweets describing a (possibly fabricated) account of not helping his hungry daughter open a can of beans so she could eat, is not remotely like Marilyn Manson being “canceled” after Evan Rachel Wood told the media that he had been abusive to her when they dated.

The instigating behaviors are all over the place, ranging from a tweet about a children’s movie to domestic violence. “Cancel culture” critics like to discuss how it “flattens nuance,” yet the “cancel culture” label puts completely unconnected people, behaviors, and controversies in the same category. But the focus on “cancel culture” as the problem allows the actual behavior that caused the situation in the first place to fade into the background. Criticism of “cancel culture” redirects you to look at the behavior of the people reacting, rather than the people who committed the initial offense. It’s a neat sleight of hand, but once you figure out how it’s done, it no longer works.

It’s also important to understand that “canceling” is not even an internet-specific phenomenon, even though the internet has changed the dynamics of it. Public figures have faced backlash from audiences for… well, as long as there have been public figures. On August 11, 1966, John Lennon gave an infamous interview where he said that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Today, that comment wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow, but it was scandalous in 1966. The public backlash was swift and severe. People protested and boycotted The Beatles. They burned Beatles albums and merchandise. It’s part of Beatles lore, the “canceling” of John Lennon.

The internet has broadened the scope of who can face this type of backlash, because the internet has allowed more people than ever to become public figures and has fundamentally changed the nature of fame. But this particular type of behavior, the public rejection of someone famous after they do or say something that offends public sensibilities, is simply part of being a public figure. It is true that public sensibilities have changed, so instead of public outrage over apparent anti-Christian remarks, the public gets outraged over issues of social justice.

Calling it “cancel culture” and insisting that it is a new, nefarious influence in society is simply not factually true.

Community “Cancelations” & Trashing

One thing that the “cancelations” I discussed above have in common is that they all revolve around a public figure. How prominent they are varies, but we can all agree that a rock star and YouTuber are at least unquestionably public figures. So, what about “cancelations” that happen within a community? When the person at the center is not a public figure?

It’s honestly hard to address, because these don’t happen in the public view. There’s rarely a record or a timeline we can follow. So, without a case study, it’s difficult to discuss in any substantive way. But the question remains the same: Given that we don’t have many examples of this happening that we can cite, and don’t have an data to pull from, is it fair to call these situations “cancel culture?” How do those situations relate to the “cancelations” of celebrities and public figures? Can you reasonably compare a blow-up in a private Facebook group to any known examples of “cancelations?” What is the thread that connects an argument amongst people who share a community space (whether it’s online or out in the real world) to a celebrity getting dragged on Twitter? Is this actually the same thing?

As I see it, there are two basic genres of the community “cancelation”:

  1. Personal Arguments That Loop in Other People, or Trashing
  2. Flame Wars

When it comes to personal arguments, well, that’s been happening since people have gathered in groups and had conflict with one other. The dynamics of the internet can make these incidents more dramatic and leave a lasting impact. For instance, there is usually no paper trail of the time you and a friend had an argument in 6th grade and everyone in your friend group chose sides and weaponized rumors against their sworn preteen enemies, but the internet remembers. The internet, in fact, never forgets. So, if you have an argument within a peer group online, there are “receipts.” There are screenshots, detailed timelines and evidence of wrongdoing from each side, catalogued and pulled out when you want to get a jab in. (And in many cases, the “dossier of past wrongs” comes into play when public figures are “canceled” too.)

But is this a phenomenon specific to the internet? No. Not even remotely. Jo Freeman wrote an essay in 1976 called “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood” that perfectly describes what we might now call a community “canceling.”

Trashing can be done privately or in a group situation; to one’s face or behind one’s back; through ostracism or open denunciation. The trasher may give you false reports of what (horrible things) others think of you; tell your friends false stories of what you think of them; interpret whatever you say or do in the most negative light; project unrealistic expectations on you so that when you fail to meet them, you become a “legitimate” target for anger; deny your perceptions of reality; or pretend you don’t exist at all. Trashing may even be thinly veiled by the newest group techniques of criticism/self-criticism, mediation, and therapy. Whatever methods are used, trashing involves a violation of one’s integrity, a declaration of one’s worthlessness, and an impugning of one’s motives In effect, what is attacked is not one’s actions, or one’s ideas, but one’s self.

Jo Freeman, “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood”

In pre-internet times, feminists would distribute fliers and (later) zines alerting others in the community that someone in their midst is Problematic in some way. Now, no one makes fliers, but you might make a social media post or even a website. The behavior, the context, the arc, is the same. On the internet, your trashing is preserved, and the circle of people who get looped into a trashing is much wider. And communities have changed, so you may find yourself being trashed by someone you don’t even know. But is this enough to make “canceling” distinct from trashing? In my honest option, no. They are the same thing.

Canceled or Flamed?

And when it comes to group fights and blow-ups online, we actually already have a term for that and it makes a heck of a lot more sense than “cancel culture.” It’s not a culture, it’s a flame war. I suspect that, at the ripe old age of 38, I am simply old enough to have survived message board and listserv flame wars, whereas this seems like a novel phenomenon to younger folks who weren’t around for the days of dial-up internet. And the cool thing is that because this was once a novel phenomenon that no one understood, we studied it a lot. We have data and information about the specific conditions, behaviors, and conflicts that constitute a flame war.

So, what’s a flame war? To pull out my 6th grade writing skills, the Wikipedia page defines a flame war thusly:

Flaming or roasting is the act of posting insults, often including profanity or other offensive language, on the internet.[1] This term should not be confused with the term trolling, which is the act of someone going online, or in person, and causing discord. Flaming emerged from the anonymity that Internet forums provide cover for users to act more aggressively.[2] Anonymity can lead to disinhibition, which results in the swearing, offensive, and hostile language characteristic of flaming. Lack of social cues, less accountability of face-to-face communications, textual mediation and deindividualization are also likely factors.[3] 

Does that sound familiar? Does that sound like situations we classify as “cancel culture?”

As anyone who has ever lived through a good old-fashioned AOL flame war can attest, they are often nasty, consuming, even traumatic affairs. When I was a teen, I was a huge fan of the show Mystery Science Theater 3000. (I still am, in fact!) In 1993, the show’s creator and host Joel Hodsgon left the show and hosting duties were transferred to head writer Mike Nelson. The change was so jarring for fans of the show that it snowballed into a period that is now part of MST3K lore, the “Mike vs. Joel Flame Wars.” I was 10 in 1993, so I wasn’t around (or online) for that legendary flame war. But several years down the road, in 1995, I logged onto AOL and started frequenting a message board where MST3K fans chatted about the show. It was a friendly place, and it was remarkably free of men who learned I was 12 and wanted to send me porn. One day, I had retroactively experienced the transition from Joel to Mike, and posted on the message board asking who people preferred. (I liked Joel.) The community quickly stepped in to let me know that I had broached The Subject That Must Not Be Named. An admin removed my post and issued a warning that the topic was forbidden. At the time it was confusing, but when I lived through a few myself? I understood. They are deeply destabilizing and hurtful. The term “flame war” might sound dramatic, but it does accurately describe the experience of having little fireballs of hate sent to you and sending one back in return.

But I also think it’s important to put this behavior in the context of online behavior, because that is primarily where it exists, particularly in online groups. “Cancel culture” implies a dark, sinister force in society that is causing people to viciously cut each other down. And, yeah, there is! It’s called the internet. “Cancel culture” is just a poor way of describing flame wars and people being dicks on the internet. It’s not new. It’s as old as the internet.

The Evolution of Cancel Culture

The concern about “cancel culture” can be traced back to the #MeToo movement.

#MeToo was started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006. But, it rose to international prominence in 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged other women to share the hashtag to raise awareness of how many women were victims of assault. It lead to famous, wealthy men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, comedian Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, even Disney’s Chief Creative Officer John Lassester, being held to account for their histories of sexual assault and abuse. It filtered through workplaces, through politics, through churches, through schools. Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced their own #MeToo accusations. There was even a #MeToo reckoning at a former workplace of mine — the CEO and a department VP were ousted because of sexual harassment allegations. It was a reckoning on a grand scale. The predatory behavior of these men was brought to light, investigated, and real-world consequences were doled out.

But things took a turn in 2018, at least in terms of online discourse. Babe.net published a piece by an anonymous woman using the nom de plume “Grace” that detailed a weird, uncomfortable date with actor Aziz Ansari. “Grace” had come to understand the sexual encounter as assault, but the lines were less clearly defined than in the allegations against someone like Harvey Weinstein. There was no pattern of abuse, as with other #MeToo investigations. (In fact, establishing a pattern of behavior was something of a hallmark of the Ronan Farrow #MeToo Takedown Method, because one rape or sexual harassment was not enough to justify #MeToo’ing a powerful man.) A lot of women and men saw their own experiences in “Grace’s” account of the date. She was uncomfortable at the time, but went along with it. Ansari himself was surprised to learn that his date considered their encounter to be sexual assault. And, because the internet is weird, this situation was also connected in the public consciousness to a fictional short story published in The New Yorker called “Cat Person,” which went viral. The story is about a young woman pursuing an older dude, some bad sex the young woman honestly didn’t want to have but went along with anyway, and then some bad behavior from the dude when he’s rejected. It’s uncomfortable, it’s blurry, it’s familiar to many women. The story left many men wondering if they could have been the man in “Cat Person” without even realizing it.

This moment shifted the conversation from, “Oh my god, is every famous man secretly a sexual predator?!” to, “What are the specific qualifying conditions of a sexual assault and #MeToo accusation?” and “Could I possibly be #MeToo’d?!”

While #MeToo was at its peak, there was a lot of (ridiculous) hand-wringing from men (particularly older men) who wondered if they might also get the #MeToo treatment for simply talking to their female colleagues. Men pouted in Facebook comment sections: “Well, I’ll just never hire a woman again, and if I have to, I won’t talk to them!” And the Aziz Ansari story got lots of people joining in. Could a bad date now be considered sexual assault? Lots of women realized that they’d had similar sexual experiences that they had not considered to be assault. Men flipped through their sexual history, wondering if they could have accidentally sexually assaulted someone, or could be accused of it. It shifted the focus away from the very real behavior of predatory men who had unquestionably committed sexual assault and harassment, in many cases for decades, to whether the reaction of the person who was assaulted was valid, reasonable and proportionate to the situation. And that laid the ground for “cancel culture” discourse.

Another factor was, well, Trumpism. The term “witch hunt” became part of our daily lives with Trump as our President and angry conservative snapping turtles in charge of Congress. Consequences for the actions of powerful men were no longer reasonable — they had witches hunting them with false and exaggerated accusations! (Which, guys, is totally not how witch hunts worked. The witches were hunted, they didn’t do the hunting, pick up a book sometime!) So white people, particularly white men, and particularly white men of a certain political disposition, were in a defensive posture. The defensive crouch started when #MeToo took off, and Trump emboldened them to whine about how maligned they were. It was the White Man’s Burden Renaissance. The idea of “accountability” took on a shadowy, predatory tone. Accountability was not something that involved taking responsibility for one’s actions and making amends anymore. Accountability was being hunted, attacked, pilloried, hung at the gallows. Accountability was not a process one willingly engaged in to atone for bad behavior, but something you had to be dragged into against your will.

So, when there was a massive racial uprising in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and phrases like “antiracism” and “critical race theory” entered the mainstream, the stage was set. White people were looking for signs of witch hunts everywhere, and even white people who thought they were good, non-racist white people were having their understanding of their role in racism and oppression upended. The idea that white people could be perpetuating racism without even realizing it because they existed as part of a racist system freaked a lot of people out. People were worried that an anonymous mob would take them out for accidental racism or not using inclusive pronouns. They were worried that old tweets from 2010 when South Park was considered funny would come back to haunt them. And we’d been primed by #MeToo discourse to not focus on the “accidental racism” or tweets with Holocaust jokes in them as the wrong, but to evaluate whether the reaction to those things was excessive or inappropriate.

The idea of being part of a system of racism without realizing it, without consenting to it, without being able to exonerate oneself from the system of whiteness, was a lot of people’s worst nightmare. We adopted a defensive stance. The P.C. police were hiding behind bushes, ready to jump out and lecture you about taking MLK quotes out of context. If you’re guessing the term witch hunt came up a few times during this period, you would be correct.

Media and conversations about BLM protests across the country focused on whether the reaction to the news of George Floyd or yet another Black person killed by police was reasonable, or whether it was a “riot.” Pay no attention to the dead Black man, they’re burning down a Target! They’re standing on a police car! Is this really an appropriate, proportionate reaction to racial violence? (As opposed to, “Should we maybe do something about all this racial violence?”)

This is also when public discourse about “cancel culture” reached a fever pitch. Small communities, like fat activism and HAES, saw microcosms of this dynamic play out in their own communities. White folks wrung their hands over whether they would “accidentally” say the wrong thing or forget to capitalize Black or not list their privileges thoroughly enough and be besieged by an angry mob. But, again, the concern about being “canceled” for saying the wrong thing or accidentally offending a marginalized group breezes over the behavior that caused the reaction. By focusing on “cancel culture” over, you know, a culture where people have been allowed to degrade and offend marginalized people with impunity for centuries, you are minimizing the role we play in how people react to us. When you focus on “cancel culture,” you exonerate yourself, and cast people who generally hold less social power than you as predators. So, the predators are no longer the people engaging in bad behavior, but the people who call attention to the bad behavior. How convenient for people who want to behave badly!

So, it’s not hard to see why conservatives jumped onto this label and started writing and podcasting and publicly grumbling about it. It was the next step in their wars against “political correctness,” “P.C. culture,” and the imagined stifling of their “free speech.” This (unreasonable) fear of being besieged by people trying to take your freedom, your guns, your money, and your powerful is the foundation that modern conservatism is based on. Their gripe isn’t even new or original, it is the same gripe they have had since any person who was not a white man tried to assert their rights. That it’s not fair, and it’s ruining the vibe of their dominance over all that the light touches.

And it says a lot about the concept of “cancel culture” that it married with white conservative paranoia so perfectly.

The Anti-Cancel Culture to Conspiracy Theory Pipeline

On January 6, 2021, I was working from home. It was a normal enough day, but then it went off the rails. I don’t even remember how I got wind of it. At some point, I went to The Washington Post’s website and started watching live footage of a mob of angry Trump supporters marching toward the Capitol in Washington, D.C. They shouted, carried signs, trampled over barriers. Reporters live on the scene were getting scared, and eventually they fled, some of them phoning in their reports. I could hear the fear in their voices, and see the terror in the eyes of their Washington Post colleagues listening to them, unable to believe what was happening. The live stream showed people breaking windows, using a battering ram on doors. I asked a coworker on Slack, “Do you think it’s okay to stop working in the middle of an insurrection?”

I watched in disbelief, along with the rest of the country. The rioters made it into the Capitol building. They broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office, throwing paper all over the place and putting their feet up on her desk. They chased a Black police officer, Eugene Goodman, through the halls of the Capitol building. They swung from the rafters, draped a Confederate flag on a statue. They crushed a police officer in a doorway as he screamed. It was one of the most horrific things I’ve seen in my life. Those images are burned in my brain.

How we ended up at that particular moment in time is complex, but also very simple.

We had known that groups like QAnon were a threat. I had first heard of QAnon in 2016, during “Pizzagate.” At first, it was easy enough to dismiss them as right-wing nuts. But during Trump’s presidency, QAnon grew, both in prominence and numbers. It infiltrated the mainstream. Trump and people in his inner circle, such as Michael Flynn, played to their QAnon crowd, seeing it as politically advantageous. They hoped that the power of Q could help carry the 2020 election for them. And, as dedicated “digital soldiers,” the Q adherents happily and feverishly went to work spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories online to help swing the election in Trump’s favor. Their entire ideology, a bizarre and loosely-connected set of beliefs (whose origin is antisemitism and “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”) that cast Trump as the savior from the “deep state” of pedophiles and baby-eaters, rested upon Trump winning the 2020 election. They had already had to the doomsday cult pivot when the Mueller report, a key part of their Q conspiracy theory that was supposed to expose the deep state pedophile ring and trigger mass arrests, was a dead end. They couldn’t withstand the blow of losing Trump; their ideology would crumble.

But the simple part was this: Misdirection. They directed us to be concerned about the aggressive mob of “woke” witch hunters coming to take over the world by leaving nasty comments on your Instagram. Pay no attention to the mob behind the curtain.

Somehow, we never saw it coming.

In order to have the maximum amount of impact and expand their influence, QAnon had to expand their base, to dig their hooks more deeply into the mainstream and have as much influence as possible. The 8chan crowd is, generally speaking, unpalatable to the mainstream. So Q’s followers developed pipelines on social media that acted as feeders into conspiracy theory. QAnon didn’t need people to believe that there was a deep state of pedophiles and Trump was the savior; they just need to sow enough distrust in the system to create a sense of unease. They just needed to knock people off-center enough to wobble. And then they could hook them and get them repeating their rhetoric without even realizing it. And influencers, these people who may not consider themselves a public figures or feel a social responsibility to do anything but tell you whatever they think, were especially powerful tools of spreading disinformation. Because we form powerful parasocial relationships with influencers, and come to trust them as we would a friend, even though they are strangers.

They wanted to appeal to women, especially white suburban women, who everyone involved in the 2020 election knew were a key base of voters. So QAnon created pipelines in “wellness” communities, where skepticism of medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, vaccines, and authority ran rampant. Influencers rule the roost here, infiltrating hearts and minds with pastel memes and a curated sense of authenticity. QAnon and the edgelord faction leveraged influencers and theirs audiences’ willingness to consider ideas outside of the mainstream, outside of the realm of accepted knowledge, to hook white suburban women.

They wanted to appeal to moms, so they played on their love and concern for their children by creating campaigns focused on “child trafficking.” For a generation of mothers who were raised during the “stranger danger” era, where you could hear about “ritual Satanic abuse” on daytime talk shows, the idea of a stranger stealing your child at Target and selling them into a ring of pedophiles who eat children was not so outlandish.

And they also leveraged influencers to create a pipeline for regular people who were sucked into “cancel culture” fear mongering: Anti-cancel culture.

Lest I sound like a conspiracy theorist myself, I do want to point out that most of the folks who are gateways into conspiracy theory are not aware that they are gateways. Just as many QAnon adherents have never spent even a second on 8chan, and have never heard of Jim and Ron Watkins, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, “Gamegate,” or any of the influences that led to QAnon, you don’t have to follow QAnon to help their ideas proliferate.

The people pulling the strings for Q aren’t stupid. They grew up on the internet. They know how to leverage it. They are experienced trolls, professional shitposters. Developing gateways for their ideas that obfuscated who they actually were is a known strategy of theirs: Even though “Q” exclusively used 8chan for his “drops,” they developed websites that were designed to allow Q-believers to access the “drops” without having to visit 8chan because if most of those people saw the kind of content posted on 8chan and saw first hand what a dark, musty corner of the internet unleashed QAnon into the world, those people would be lost.

And they know that all they need to do is plant an innocuous-sounding idea out there and watch it bloom and spread its seed. All it takes is an idea that strikes a chord. The internet does the rest. They don’t need to you be a full-on QAnon digital soldier, they just need you to help spread (or just be open to) the ideas at the core of QAnon. This is why so many people sense a connection between QAnon, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, #SavetheChildren, #StoptheSteal, anti-maskers, COVID-deniers, but can’t quite trace it. It is hard to find the strings, by design.

They also know that the act of trying to connect all of these things is a beast, which is why this post only scratches the surface and it’s basically a million words long. (Sorry about that.) They know that trying to assemble these different pieces of niche internet culture into a cohesive narrative makes you sound like the one unhinged and out of touch with reality. That’s also by design.

I had personally only had a vague timeline in my head until recently. But the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-vaccine and anti-mask factions, crystalized it for me. Because I was almost sucked in. They almost got me.

There is a group of accounts on Instagram who are sort of a leftist anti-cancel culture posse. They’re a reasonably diverse bunch: Some self-described abolitionists, some therapists, some regular Joes with Canva accounts. And many of them make a compelling case that “cancel culture” is a sickness in society, that being “canceled” is trauma, that online mobs are suppressing freedom of expression and freedom of thought. “Cancel culture” stifles discourse and stomps out dissent. “Cancel culture” is a means of coercive control in society, and we need to stay vigilant and resist “carceral logic” that punishes people for thinking differently. We need to be open to different opinions, different perspectives. Sounded reasonable to me, at one point. I like nuance, I like discussion, and I want to consider different viewpoints! I like free speech and expression! I was concerned about how people were treating others online!

But then I saw it and I couldn’t unsee it: the anti-vaccine rhetoric. It crept in slowly, because that is how this works. You don’t start off by asking people if they want to join your cult. You ask them, “Don’t you want to be free? Don’t you want to change the world? Would you be open to hearing some of our ideas?” They offer a solution to a common problem, a soft ideology that would appear reasonable to the uninitiated. They prime you to be open. They slowly immerse you in water and then turn up the heat, bit by bit. You don’t even notice that you’re starting to be boiled alive.

It happened quicker than a single-frame shot in a movie. You’d watch their Instagram stories, and it would go like this: Cancel culture, cancel culture, look at this cool post, here is a video of a cat, ANTI-VACCINE SENTIMENT, cancel culture, cancel culture, pls listen to my podcast. I started noticing that they were harboring anti-vaxxers in their midst, publicly supporting and defending them, urging us to check out their accounts. But you shouldn’t be keeping track of who other people follow on social media, they said. That’s surveillance. That is acting like a cop, and cops are bad. You don’t want to be a cop, do you?

It hit me like a ton of bricks. These people were not urging me to consider all perspectives. They were specifically urging me to consider fringe perspectives. They were placing the perspective that the COVID vaccine would make you magnetic or is a government conspiracy to make you sick on the same level as actual reasonable perspectives, such as vaccines being safe and COVID-19 being real. And you know what? They had me for a little while. They had me convinced that it was unreasonable to swat away perspectives that I didn’t agree with, even if I knew they were not based in fact and not rooted in reality. But, you know, it is entirely reasonable to just completely dismiss that masks are oppression on par with Jim Crow laws because that is fucking ridiculous and untethered from reality. But when you normalize these ideas, and normalize putting them on equal footing with knowledge based in science, expertise, and reason, it starts to seem a lot more reasonable to be willing to entertain arguments that masks are a bigger threat to public health and freedom than a virus that is actively killing a whole bunch of people.

So, the election is over, Joe Biden has been inaugurated and is now President of the United States, and Trump is banned from pretty much every social media platform. Where does the Q energy go? Where does the angry white mob take its piss and vinegar? Well, the pandemic made that pretty clear. They morphed yet again, this time into COVID deniers, lockdown protesters, anti-maskers, and now anti-vaxxers.

And, unfortunately, because this is a terrifying, unprecedented time in history and most of us are turned upside down, a lot of us are ready to accept the idea that this is all a hoax and vaccines are the real threat. Because that is less frightening than everything that is actually happening. It’s easier to accept that this is all a nefarious plan that someone is controlling, rather than an unexpected, uncontrolled, unknown virus that is killing people. It’s easier to accept that the trucks holding bodies outside of hospitals aren’t real, rather than face the fact that those trucks are actually holding the bodies of people who have perished from this virus in numbers too great to be contained by the freezers in hospitals. If the real threat is just a vaccine or a piece of fabric on your face, that’s much easier the combat than a novel, deadly virus. It is a message perfectly designed for this period in history.

I know that most of the people helping these dangerous ideas spread have no idea that they are doing the work that shitlords on 8chan started. They might even find the suggestion ridiculous, and paint me as a conspiracy theorist. But the spread of disinformation doesn’t require that you be in on it; in fact, it works a lot better if you don’t even suspect it, because the people who planted the seed of disinformation want you to earnestly believe it. And ideas become diluted as they pass from place to place, like making copies of a copy. Hard-line vaccines-cause-autism conspiracy theory is watered down into a vague sense that vaccines are scary and risky. COVID denial and conspiracy theory is watered down into the belief that masks are fine, but mandating them is coercive and dangerous.

These forces also play right into the belief that each of us has about ourselves, that we are too smart to ever be hoodwinked by a stupid conspiracy theory or sucked into a cult. But that’s what everyone who has ever escaped a cult has said. No one willingly joins a cult, they are lured in by an appealing idea. Hell, they almost got (hashtag?) me too.

And when it comes to “cancel culture,” it turns out that the mob we should have been concerned about was not the online mob of antiracists coming to your comments section to teach you about critical race theory. It was the mob that stormed that Capitol on January 6th, 2021. It was the mob of people refusing to stay home, refusing to wear masks, and refusing vaccines, endangering themselves and each other with their germs. It was the mob of people sowing discontent and disinformation and pandering to our worst instincts.

They were right in front of us the whole time.

Climbing Out of the Rabbit Hole

I don’t have a brilliant solution to any of this. That’s way above my pay grade. But I do know that seeing it is the first step to fighting it.

Social media is a place where information must be meme-ified. Complex social issues must be broken down into listicles and friendly information nuggets in order for people to be willing to consume them. So, we look for ways to simplify complicated situations and ideas. And this is a big reason why we look to terms like “cancel culture” to simplify situations that have nothing to do with each other. If we can’t easily understand something, we will force it into the most convenient container. And we grasp to make things bite-sized and easier to understand and control extra hard when the world around us feels chaotic and scary. Human beings are wired to find order in chaos.

So part of the solution is just accepting uncertainty, and accepting that things are complicated. We are not built to do this. Every part of our nervous system seeks order and control. But being able to say you don’t understand something, or acknowledge that you are overwhelmed and scared, is both more brave and more honest than trying to force everything in a meme-able format and scale it down for easy consumption with a call-to-action. Sometimes, problems are so much bigger than you the there is nothing you, individually, can do to make a dent in them.

And this will be particularly hard after so many years living in a world of “alternative facts,” but the path out of this mess is recognizing that not all perspectives are valid. Yes, people have the freedom to believe that vaccines will make them magnetic, but that does not make it a valid or reasonable belief worth considering. And people have the freedom to believe that the moon landing was faked and filmed by Stanley Kubrick, but that does not make it a fact. People have the freedom to believe that Tom Hanks eats babies, but that does not mean that we need to carefully consider whether Tom Hanks, in fact, eats babies. People have the freedom to believe that mask and vaccine mandates are comparable to Nazi Germany, but that does not mean we need to take their antisemitic and ridiculous beliefs into account when crafting public health policy. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs, but not all beliefs are reasonable and equally worthy of consideration.

We’ve also got to accept that ideas and beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. We don’t live in isolation, even when we are literally confined to our homes. When you express an idea or belief in public, or to others, it is no longer just yours. It leaves you and enters the lives, hearts, and minds of others. (Sort of like an airborne virus. Hmm.) We affect each other, we influence each other. Words and ideas can, in fact, cause harm. If that weren’t true, people wouldn’t find “cancel culture” threatening, because those people all have their own right to their beliefs about the person they’re “canceling,” right? Words and ideas can be dangerous. They can even be deadly; QAnon has a body count. We all need to develop better filters — both for what words, thoughts and ideas we unleash into the world and onto others, and which words, thoughts, and ideas we choose to let in. We live in the world together. We need to be better at understanding that.

And, for the love of Glob, we need to get better at vetting sources and understanding where information comes from. We need to stop trying to kill expertise and believing that we can become more knowledgable about infectious diseases than Dr. Fauci because we Googled some stuff. We need to teach it in schools, add it to the curriculum. The internet has democratized information, which is amazing, but we are now experiencing the fallout.

The phrase “stay woke” has a long and storied history, and has been co-opted from Black communities. One of the first recorded incidents of the phrase “stay woke” was from Lead Belly, who uttered it in a recording of his song “Scottsboro Boys,” which was about a group of nine Black teenagers accused of raping a white woman. The phrase meant the Black folks should keep their eyes open to threats from white America. It was a prophetic warning. They still need to stay woke, because we, white America, are still a threat. We are still the angry mob.

So, at the end of the day, all I can say is this: Get vaxxed. Mask up. Vet your sources. Exercise your critical thinking muscles. Stay sharp, stay woke, notice the mob creeping up behind you, and for the love of humanity, don’t let them trick you into joining them with an alluring idea and Instagram memes. I almost got taken in, it’s much easier than you think. We live in a period where fighting the virus of disinformation and COVID-19 are inextricably linked. I know that we can’t do one without the other, and honestly? I’m terrified we will never defeat either one.

5 thoughts on “Pay No Attention to the Mob Behind the Curtain: On Cancel Culture

  1. Wow! What a thing I just read! (I will also read it again tomorrow at a reasonable hour when I am not drinking rum.) This was so cool and reasonable and fun to read. Thank you for explaining some of the weird historical precedents of this very-online stuff, and connecting it to the current travesty of anit-masking garbage. This is something that has really been bothering me, and even though I am still very angry at the anti-vaxxers and “Patriot” crowd, I feel like somebody has finally tried to the answer the burning “WHY” question that has been bothering me more than anything else.

    Damn good job. Post more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’ve been noodling over the WHY for over a year at this point, and it’s taken me this long to finally put the pieces together. I do also tend to forget that folks younger than myself, the true digital natives, have not existed in a world where a “flame war” was a thing they could experience so I’m glad my bits of internet history are helpful in that regard. I do think that, ultimately, what 8chan & QAnon’s founders have essentially done is troll the entire world. This is a group of people who just like to cause chaos and watch people run around in a panic, and they have managed that on a scale I don’t even think they could have imagined.

      Like

  2. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I feel like we are just now starting to scratch the surface of how much QAnon has grown this year through COVID misinformation campaigns. My best friend started 2020 a well-educated middle class white woman whose kid was vaccinated and ended it an unknowing member of QAnon with a baby who will never be vaccinated but sleeps next to a shelf of crystals. The mob is here, and as far as I can tell the only thing to do is inform each other of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many stories like this, it’s so much easier to get sucked in that any of us likes this think. It’s so scary. When we get past this (or, if we get past it), it’ll be fascinating to study the map of how we got to this weird, frightening point in history where the truth has no meaning anymore and we have a vaccine for an infectious disease that’s killing people but people are screaming that the vaccine is the problem and the virus isn’t real. If you have told me, in 2015, that this would be the world I live in just a few years later, I wouldn’t have believed it.

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