Published on November 26, 2019, at 6:26 p.m.
by Christina Guyton.
It’s 1:36 a.m. on May 11, 2019. I’m lying in bed, conducting my routinely nighttime Twitter perusal, when I see a recurring theme: “James Charles is #canceled.” “Tati Westbrook SNAPPED.” “#BYESISTER.” I had no idea what was going on, but I had to find out.
I, like many others, became invested in the cancelation of makeup YouTuber James Charles at the hands of his former mentor and fellow beauty YouTuber Tati Westbrook. I watched her 43-minute video, which dragged Charles’ personal actions through the proverbial dirt. An hour prior, I could have cared less about the CoverBoy’s popularity, but at almost 3 a.m. I was watching Charles’ Social Blade live subscriber count plummet. While he occupied none of my preceding thoughts, I concluded that James Charles was officially canceled. I had only wished that I was one of his 3 million subscribers lost the weekend that Tati’s video
This ever-looming fear, threatening people and brands alike, is appropriately titled “cancel culture.” According to Urban Dictionary, cancel culture is “a modern internet phenomenon where a person is ejected from influence or fame by questionable actions. It is caused by a critical mass of people who are quick to judge and slow to question. It is commonly caused by an accusation, whether that accusation has merit or not.”
From beauty influencers to musicians, a plethora of celebrities have fallen victim to cancel culture, leaving them alienated by those who were once super fans. But this public relations nightmare is not a new phenomenon. While the rise of social media, especially information-based sites like Twitter, has contributed to the immediacy of news and bandwagon canceling, blameworthy stories have always captivated readers.
Remember the pre-digital cancelation of Winona Ryder in 2001 or Hugh Grant in 1995? Or what about the former D.C. mayor Marion Barry being arrested for smoking crack cocaine in 1990? Celebrity scandals have always fascinated our culture, but while the reporting experts on the aforementioned incidents were news media outlets, today’s correspondents are not truth-seeking journalists.
Instead, the power to cancel someone is now in the hands of any tech-savvy, sentence-forming human. The news no longer decides what is breaking; the only coverage impediment today is character count. Anyone can go to social platforms and blast a celebrity or brand for an act of malice, or sometimes just a lapse in judgment.
The Twitter mob will uncover old tweets for the sake of ousting a celebrity for past offenses, even if the climate at the time rendered the tweet acceptable. For example, in December 2018, 7-year-old tweets authored by Kevin Hart were resurfaced and deemed homophobic. Hart was immediately canceled and his Oscar-hosting position quickly rescinded.
This backdated cancel culture story is one of the many cautionary tales for PR practitioners. Whether it’s a past or future statement, it could potentially be perceived as offensive by the hyper-critical social justice warriors. With the current minefield of off-limit subjects, any public brand or personality is susceptible to #cancelculture.