By Mikhail Yakovlev
On 13th June this year, a new satellite channel launched in the UK. Its self-described mission? To give a voice to the silent majority who, according to its Chairman Andrew Neil, have been ‘cancelled’ by elite media and their ‘woke’ agenda. If this sounds remarkably similar to the incoherent anti-media messaging that used to come from Donald Trump’s ‘cancelled’ Twitter account, this is because it is.
Unfortunately, this silenced majority has not come through. According to the clickbait title of a review in The Guardian, “GB News launch gains more viewers than BBC or Sky news channels”. But, when these figures are broken down in the very same article, they are far less impressive. During the 19:00 to 23:00 slot on the day of the big launch, GB News received 1.1% of audience share, compared to BBC News Channel’s 0.9% and Sky News’s 0.4%. But, BBC 1’s flagship ‘News at Ten’ attracted an altogether more impressive 30.6% of the audience. Since then, GB News ratings have plunged altogether, reaching 0 after the Channel’s boycott of taking the knee.
The Great British News flop points to the confusing place of ‘cancel culture’, in our increasingly confusing world. While right-wing media and Twitter ‘personallities’ accuse mainstream media and social media companies of complicity in woke ‘cancel culture’, it is the most marginalised voices that remain silenced in conventional and social media.
At the same time, it is important not to downplay legitimate concerns about freedom of speech and toxic mob take-downs, such as doxxing, especially prevalent on some social media like WeChat. Unfortunately, it is precisely these complex and muddy dynamics that render ‘cancel culture’ such a confusing phenomenon and term. To get to the bottom of things, Media Diversity Institute (MDI) asked six academics, writers, and activists one major question – what is ‘cancel culture’ and who/what is threatened by it?
Frankie Morgan (she/her) is a PhD Researcher, University of Birmingham and a committee member of the Graduate Centre for Europe. She researches feminist visual cultures on social media.
The text below is an edited transcription of the embedded video.
Mikhail Yakovlev: I would like to start by asking you very broadly, what do you understand by cancel culture and could it pose a threat to freedom of speech?
Frankie Morgan: I think there is a need for nuance when we talk about cancel culture. Ιt is definitely a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially recently to the extent that it has somewhat become meaningless. So it has become this catch all term used to refer to everything from calling out criticism, opposition calls for accountability, expressions of concern all the way through to shaming and online abuse. Some of the questions I’m interested in are ‘what does it mean to be cancelled when so many people who have claimed to experience it continue to have power and influence?’ ‘How do we ‘measure or determine when a cancellation has occurred?’.
I recently saw the term ‘uncancelled’ used to refer to people like Kevin Spacey – men who are making a comeback after accusations of sexual violence. Does this suggest that they were never, in fact, cancelled in the first place? The terminology surrounding uncancelled is quite interesting.
I also think we need to be quite wary of using the term cancel culture within feminist and activist communities, especially when referring to internal division as it risks reinforcing a particular narrative that positions privileged and powerful people who have done harmful or problematic things as the victim of this form of online mob.
Is there a need for kind of re framing how we talk about cancel culture or this internal division within feminist communities? Joe Freeman conceptualized it as trashing in 1976, which shows that it is not really this new phenomenon, and it is not really the kind of product of social media that it is often perceived to be. These issues relating to controversial speakers on university campuses is an issue that is going back decades. So we need to look at it – it is part of longer history.
Then it is also often framed as a generational issue, especially within feminist communities. This real second wave versus fourth wave narrative, which furthers this oppositional perspective obscures intergenerational collaboration. This particularly happens with trans issues and intersectionality. This rhetoric surrounding cancel culture creates an impression that these would have never previously been a point of contention when it is certainly not the case; and it can be used to trivialize the concerns of younger feminist activists. Opposition, division, and conflict within feminism has always been a part of feminism, right from the female fight for female suffrage, and it will be a part of feminist activism. I think it is quite inevitable.
This is the way I think about cancel culture as a term in the rhetoric more broadly and in relation to feminist issues in particular.
Mikhail Yakovlev: I was wondering whether you have any thoughts about how the dynamics changed or didn’t change with social media, especially in terms of which voices now have the ability to be heard to not be heard?
Frankie Morgan: It’s quite interesting what social media brings into it. I think in some ways, obviously, it gives everyone the access and the ability to put their views on a public platform – whether those views necessarily get heard is a different matter – but it does give people the ability to share their views publicly, and even to directly address public figures, celebrities, politicians via Twitter.
I think it’s quite important to think of social media as a space in which speech happens rather than as this non-space. So it’s necessary to think about all these interactions within this space of social media. It has given people who are typically silenced or marginalized the ability to forge a platform and have these kind of activist tools at hand. For example, calling people out or expressing criticism of people. But it’s also necessary to understand that the same power dynamics that exist in wider society are still the case on social media. So, people who are white privileged and experience all those layers of different privilege, they are more likely to be heard compared to those who are more marginalized.
I also think a lot about the issue of echo chambers and how that intersects with the issue of cancel culture.
People seem to think that social media perhaps has eradicated debate and eradicated actual productive discussion and I think that [productive dialogue] does happen within specific echo chambers. What doesn’t happen is that crossing over the Earth, those boundaries, the debate and discussion happening across the political spectrum or across communities, or echo chambers and how come the social media facilitates that kind of polarization and division in some aspects.
I think there’s also a tendency to think of social media as this bastion of free speech. Like it’s a space where free speech happens; speech is unrestricted and unlimited, when, in reality, these are privately owned companies and they do have the ability to restrict the content shared on their platforms and they put in place community guidelines and standards which say that this content will be taken down. I mean they don’t always necessarily do that fairly and they don’t always necessarily do it effectively, but it is a power that they do have.
So the issues surrounding free speech and cancel culture really come to the fore because of the way these platforms are created and how they facilitate speech but also the ways in which they can restrict it in certain ways.
Mikhail Yakovlev: One thing that I wanted to ask you is on this idea that social media companies are able to police our speech. It has been a debate for quite a long time and from the evidence that we get it’s usually not the people who say that they have been cancelled that actually do get cancelled by social media – or some exceptions like Trump after he has obviously already incited an actual riot then when he got cancelled. But a lot of the time it seems that the way social media want them – algorithms and in person monitoring and sort of censorship works is just censoring voices that are already marginalized. I just wanted to ask, to what extent would you agree with the fact that cancel culture is almost weaponized to keep those voices silenced and marginalized, because obviously the terms cancel and cancelled come from Black American subculture of the 70s and 80s? But because these people who use the term are removed from mainstream media; through gatekeeping, which still happens in offline media, do you think that perhaps the whole cancel culture hysteria is all about, marginalized voices, ethnic, and racial minority voices or trans voices now actually having a platform to speak? And you know those people like Guardian journalists for example, who write transphobic content, they can no longer speak without being challenged?
Frankie Morgan: I definitely think as a brief point, the Community guidelines and standards that are put in place, supposedly to make these platforms safer and more of a community can disproportionately impact women, women of colour, sex workers more marginalized groups and the content that they put out there and doesn’t necessarily have the same impact on those who are targeting those groups or abusing those groups. An interesting point is that women, trans people, people of colour are so often targeted on social media with abuse, even though those same groups are the ones quite often accused of being the proponents of cancel culture – feminists and trans activists are [accused of] restricting free speech when in reality these are the ones being abused and silenced on these platforms in a way that is making them lose a sense of themselves because they feel like they are unable to speak publicly because of the backlash that they often face.
I think that this kind of cancel culture rhetoric can really trivialize and dismiss the activism of certain communities, particularly younger generations. This idea of political correctness gone mad, the snowflake generation, social justice warriors, fuels this notion of clicktivism whilst also labelling these younger generations as apathetic. It’s this weird dichotomy and this is furthered by how quite often these discussions of cancel culture are centred on these clickbait issues for headlines that the vast majority of activists aren’t concerned with as it obscures their politics. This happens so often with feminist and trans activists in relation to gender-neutral language. This kind of idea, that we can’t call them mansize tissues anymore, because, the feminists, won’t let you. I think in reality these activists are concerned with much larger and greater issues than these. It helps to further this idea that you can be cancelled for really trivial things, when in reality, feminist communities in particular are just really trying to hold people who’ve been able to act with impunity for so long accountable #metoo being an example of this. Call out culture was used to try and hold accountable people who have been committing acts of sexual violence for decades and in some cases were able to get away with it forcing people to be silenced. I think we should be able to hold people accountable without it being labelled as kind of cancel culture or toxic as it frames the one being cancelled as the victim rather than the people that community who are hurt by that individual’s actions in the first place. We should be able to stop supporting people who’ve done horrific things – largely in the case of feminism these are acts of sexual violence – without being a attacked or shamed for cancelling someone.
I think there’s also the ability for call out or cancel culture – whatever term gets used -to be an effective tool of activism. For example, the hashtag #muteRKelly is an example that I think of as what could broadly be understood as an act of cancel culture, which was designed to hold R Kelly accountable because he had been able to act for so long without being held accountable. So stop playing his music; Stop supporting him; all off the trying to get him off radios; off streaming services. But it isn’t often thought of as cancel culture because it doesn’t fit into this rhetoric. And then there’s also examples which challenge this rhetoric of cancel culture. So #cancelKavanagh is one which was in response to Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court Justice nomination being accused of sexual assault. In reality the fact that he was nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court, challenges this narrative that white men are the victims of this cancel culture.
In relation to this idea of it being used in a way that silences minorities this rhetoric in particular, rather than the actual act, creates this fear that you can be cancelled for anything you say. So using the wrong terminology results in this self-censorship or self-silencing. However, as I previously said, education and dialogue and calling in, which is a term promoted by Loretta Ross, are a common occurrence within these communities when people make mistakes or ask questions surrounding these issues so it isn’t this thing of where you say the wrong thing and you’re instantly cancelled. I think feminists are trying to use these tools that social media has given them to try and hold people who’ve been able to act without consequences for so long accountable.
Mikhail Yakovlev: I want to pick up on the last thing you said: this idea that certain people have been able to act in a very questionable, immoral or apparent way for so long without any consequences. If we think about balancing individual rights of freedom of speech and the consequences of that speech, do you think all speech has the right to be heard and should speech have consequences for the speaker and what kind of consequences would you envisage?
Frankie Morgan: I think the issue of freedom of speech is a really interesting one because it’s quite often used as a kind of justification for things, which can be understood as hate speech in certain instances. It’s used as this defence in some ways, and freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequence, nor does it mean freedom from criticism, and it also doesn’t mean that everyone has to listen to what everyone is saying which seems to be this kind of desire, sometimes to have free speech without criticism or without backlash. I think you have to acknowledge that when you are expressing your views in a public space as you are on social media, that is going to be that kind of criticism and there is going to be that backlash if people disagree with you and that is kind of how public discourse has happened throughout time. But also, social media creates a kind of broader space in which you’re not just in an individual room in a specific time and location, but the [number of] people that can see what you’re writing is much greater. So the opportunity for criticism and backlash is also much greater.
I think it’s difficult with social media, I think because it is held as this space of free speech, like I said in reality, that’s not the case and it yet, whilst it does give those who are marginalized or silenced, the ability to share their thoughts and have a platform in certain ways, it’s also a space which is used to silence those who are marginalized, largely and it’s framed that those who are powerful and those who are influential are the ones that are being silenced by these kind of online mobs.
When in reality social media silencing and [the restriction of] the freedom of speech that happens on social media is largely happening against women and more marginalized groups, people of colour and trans activists. So reframing it in a way that we understand that white men on the right are not necessarily the victims of this online mob, when in reality the impact of restrictions to freedom of speech that happens on social media is largely to those who have historically been silenced and historically have been marginalized. This is how we can create a space in which that isn’t the case, particularly tackling issues surrounding online abuse, which forces this self-silencing and self-censorship.