Cancel culture shows how authoritarianism is rewarded by social media

There has always been a significant undercurrent of authoritarianism in smaller political movements, often disguised by their allies or top line rhetoric. Some of these groups have claimed conservative values, while ignoring the strong liberal tradition historically found in the Conservative party. Those most prominent today are robustly on the left, and ally themselves with socially liberal causes. It is worth remembering that with social media, these movements have a huge amount of power – and without it they consisted of little more than a handful of small radical societies.

On social media, the most shareable views are absolute and simplistic. They split the world into ‘goodies’ who agree and ‘baddies’ who do not, and outrage is easy to sell. In this context, it is far easier to call for retribution against the ‘baddies’ – and the authoritarians know this. Cancelling someone is easier than understanding that some people disagree on issues you believe to be fundamental.

As the social shareability of editorials – or even news content – has become a key factor for many publications, this has entered our modern press. Editorials calling for retribution against ‘baddies’, or news content using the language of the campaigner covering minor social media transgressions are commonplace. The Guardian has form for this, but even the BBC News website’s magazine section has at time indulged.

The full weight of press and social media pressure can catch any company or institution off guard. As more companies push out content to support the largest populist twitter movements’ causes, often without committing to any robust action to tackle the issues they’re talking about, they have to do something lest they be exposed (I would highly recommend reading Sam Ashworth-Hayes's blog post on corporate 'wokeism'). Often that seems to mean giving in to the campaigners’ demands, without much thought for their staff of HR policy and usually for little more than a middle-tier employee expressing a relatively common view on social media that someone has found objectionable.

Companies never seem to follow up, and the Tweeters and columnists will never admit their mistake. Concern of problematic-ness is enough for any hyperbole, and any other perspective or explanation is ignored. In countless cases, HR departments have failed to do the work that the baying mob neglects. In countless cases we have only discovered about the most ridiculous cases of excess after the perpetrator has had their life ruined by it.

There is, of course, one exception. The inconsistent nature of those cancelled can make it hard to talk comprehensively about who can and cannot be cancelled, but it seems as though women are more likely to be cancelled than men, as happened when Damian Barr was allowed to apologise. Hypocrisy in general seems acceptable, so long as you are well liked by the tweeters; in Jameela Jamil’s case, she shared a video of an antisemitic preacher and, once alerted to this, refused to apologise – yet faced no consequences. It at least looks as though cancel culture has bred a class of influencers immune from cancellation. 

When you get off the merry-go-round, and once the nausea and dizziness have dissipated, you might ask who wins out of this. It certainly isn’t those that the tweeters claim to be acting on behalf of, and society is not well served by the mass cancellation of middle-tier employees who express themselves – holding entirely legitimate views that Twitter doesn’t like. No, the winners are the cynical cancellers – those who lead the mob, with a profile to build or a book to sell, and are uncancellable themselves – and those exploitative fundraisers and front organisations – if they be linked to the Socialist Workers Party or other piggybackers – who will happily mop up the mob’s spare change. It is a great shame that, unlike a real merry-go-round, there’s no way to pull the breaks once we’ve reached terminal velocity.