Who Is Responsible For Ending Cancel Culture?

Ezra Klein says social media platforms, I beg to differ

As someone who spends a large amount of time online and an even larger amount of time thinking about how social media facilitates bad behavior, I’m always interested in seeing a good faith attempt to discuss the issue and find solutions. Ezra Klein gives it a go in his latest New York Times column and while I think he does a fine job of identifying some of the issues around how social media feeds cancel culture, I don’t think his proposed solutions would solve those issues.

Klein starts by citing two recent high-profile cases, the resignation of Alexi McCammond from Teen Vogue, and Will Wilkinson’s firing from the Niskanen Center. While the circumstances surrounding those firings are materially different from each other, Klein uses them both to make a point

“To debate whether these punishments were fair is to commit a category error. These weren’t verdicts weighed and delivered on behalf of society. These were the actions of self-interested organizations that had decided their employees were now liabilities. Teen Vogue, which is part of Condé Nast, has remade itself in recent years as a leftist magazine built around anti-racist principles. Niskanen trades on its perceived clout with elected Republicans. In both cases, the organization was trying to protect itself, for its own reasons.”

I don’t disagree with Klein’s assertion but I think it’s a little over-simplistic. When Conde Nast chose to hire McCammond, they were made aware of the tweets and her 2019 apology for them. Initially, the company was fine with how McCammond handled the situation and supported its hiring of her. That position changed once advertisers, most famously Ulta, pulled their advertising from the magazine. The attention that was generated by the social media controversy led to an advertiser boycott, which is what ultimately caused Conde Nast to part ways with McCammond. 

Wilkinson’s case is muddier still -- while Niskanen Center President Jerry Taylor specifically cited Wilkinson’s ill-advised tweet about lynching Mike Pence as the reason for his firing, one gets the feeling from Wilkinson’s first Substack post that relations between him and the organization were...not so great before the tweet. Wilkinson’s case may be an example of a more insidious trend developing, where an employer uses a tweet as cover to fire an employee it would have no reason to otherwise. 

For Klein, the blame for these and other “cancel culture” firings lay at the feet of social media platforms and employers, but mostly social media platforms. 

“What is new is the role social media (and, to a lesser extent, digital news) plays in both focusing outrage and scaring employers. And this, too, is a problem of economics, not culture. Social platforms and media publishers want to attract people to their websites or shows and make sure they come back. They do this, in part, by tuning the platforms and home pages and story choices to surface content that outrages the audience.”

Addressing this issue in terms of economic forces while skipping over market demand misses the real issue -- news outlets, and to a lesser extent social media sites, are beholden to what their audiences want. Both news outlets and social media sites also suffer from the affliction of not being able to determine why audiences are engaging with certain content, only that they are. Taking the McCammond case as an example, most of the “outrage” I saw in my circles was over the smear campaign existing at all; Twitter had no way of knowing if the engagement was positive or negative, only that engagement was happening. This works the same way with digital and TV news outlets -- Fox News knows that 4.33M people watch Tucker Carlson Tonight, but it has no way to measure if those people are doing so because they love Tucker or they hate Tucker. 

Klein moves on to a few current bugaboos for the social media critical set, the trending box and quote tweets

“The trending box blasts missives meant for one community to all communities. The original context for the tweet collapses; whatever generosity or prior knowledge the intended audience might have brought to the interaction is lost. The loss of context is supercharged by another feature of the platform: the quote-tweet, where instead of answering in the original conversation, you pull the tweet out of its context and write something cutting on top of it. (A crummier version comes when people just screenshot a tweet, so the audience can’t even click back to the original, or see the possible apology.) So the trending box concentrates attention on a particular person, already having a bad day, and the quote-tweet function encourages people to carve up the message for their own purposes.”

I think the trending function is dumb and serves no real purpose. The trending box isn’t a static function however, it is based on an algorithm that determines both what is rapidly gaining attention and what it thinks you would find interesting. The contents of your trending box are a mix of customized content and paid placement (another reason why I never bother with it) so if you’re constantly getting Twitter drama in your trending box...well...that might be on you and your viewing/tweeting habits.

As fas as a tweet making it out past its intended audience, er, welcome to Twitter. If one only wants their tweets to be seen and interacted with by their followers, Twitter offers the protected account function that allows for just that.

Quote tweeting has recently become controversial, for the reasons Klein mentions. What Klein is talking about is the cascade of harassment that can come from a large account quote tweeting a post from a smaller account -- that is crappy behavior and the definition of punching down. I’ve noticed over the past few years that larger accounts have become more sensitive to the onslaught that comes with any interactions they take part in on Twitter and have become more cautious in how they interact with smaller accounts, which is a great sign that this problem can be solved organically versus social media sites throttling quote tweets as Klein suggests.  

Klein points out that even long after the initial Twitter pileup has been forgotten, the results can linger on for years and can easily be made fresh again with a Google search. I agree that it would be unfair for a company to pass over a candidate because an internet search resurfaced some dumbass social media controversy, but the solution to that doesn’t lie with Google or Twitter. The solution lies in companies learning to, politely but firmly, telling outrage mobs to fuck off if they appear. Until then the mob will continue to use the weapon that works, and social media platforms can’t fix that without instituting some very questionable content moderation policies. 

To finish, Klein suggests stopping social media pile-ons before they start

“Finally, it would be better to focus on cancel behavior than cancel culture. There is no one ideology that gleefully mobs or targets employers online. Plenty of anti-cancel culture warriors get their retweets directing their followers to mob others. So here’s a guideline that I think would make online discourse better. Unless something that is said is truly dangerous and you actually want to see that person fired from their current job and potentially unable to find a new one — a high bar, but one that is sometimes met — you shouldn’t use social media to join an ongoing pile-on against a normal person. If it’s a politician or a cable news host or a senator, well, that’s politics. But this works differently when it’s someone unprepared for that scrutiny. We would all do better to remember that what feels like an offhand tweet to us could have real consequences for others if there are hundreds or thousands of similar tweets and articles. Scale matters.”

I agree, it’s awful behavior to subject a non-public person to a very public pile-on. I’m also not a lunatic who feels the need to weed out every single instance of imagined malfeasance on Twitter and hold it up to the light. Klein gives the benefit of the doubt to those who engage in such behavior, that they aren’t trying to get someone fired for speech they have deemed “dangerous.” But despite the cliche preface of “I not trying to get anyone fired but…” that is exactly what the intent is. I don’t know, and Klein doesn’t say, what a social media site is supposed to do to keep awful people from being awful people. 

The only way to stop online cancellation mobs is to disincentivize that behavior -- social media platforms can be a part of that effort but the bulk of that work has to come from individuals pushing back against cancel behavior and companies refusing to fire the employees who are the target of a social media driven smear campaign. Sadly, there is no magic wand that a social media platform can waive that makes that task easier.