Is cancel culture beneficial to society?

December 30, 2020

The term ‘cancel culture’ has become somewhat of a household phrase of late. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, cancel culture is defined as “a way of behaving in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you”. In fact, since the COVID-19 pandemic, cancel culture has become a lot more rampant on social media, especially among the younger generation.

Take the Xiaxue saga for instance. On July 5 and 6 this year, local social media influencer Xiaxue took to her Instagram stories to share her controversial views on Workers’ Party candidate Raeesah Khan. In response to this, many Singaporean youths lashed back at her on Twitter and Instagram. In other words, Xiaxue was swiftly cancelled online.

Instagram user @biggyviggy dug up an old, contentious tweet that Xiaxue posted back in 2010 about migrant workers in Singapore, and filed a police report against her, all while documenting the process on his own Instagram account. Another Instagram and Twitter user — @elou.ease and @elouease respectively — compiled a document with allegations against Xiaxue and a list of her sponsors and circulated it on her social media accounts. She encouraged her followers to send her document to Xiaxue’s sponsors in a bid to have them revoke their working contracts with her. This soon went viral and a significant number of Xiaxue’s sponsors ended up terminating their contracts with her, to which Xiaxue responded by filing a protection order.

Though the situation has since been resolved, this means of online vigilantism and the whole idea of cancel culture begs the question: does social media divide more than it unites?

At OPPi, we set out to discover what the public has to say with regard to this. In collaboration with ZYRUP, we conducted a crowdsourcing campaign involving 1,424 respondents. ZYRUP also gathered had a cast of Singaporean personalities to discuss the topic in a new limited video series I Have a Question (you can catch the first episode here!).

The 'I Have a Question' team with guest speaker Prof. Gerard Goggin of Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. From left to right: Farisha Ishak, Isaac Ong, Joel Lim, Prof. Gerard Goggin, Narelle Kheng.

Among our participants, over 95% agreed on the importance of having freedom of speech. At the same time, over 86% of respondents recognise that there’s a greater polarisation of views now as compared to 10 years ago. One reason this could be the case is because individuals are actively using social media a lot more now, especially since the pandemic. Coupled with the fact that youths are more comfortable with being vocal online, less discerning social media users run the risk of being trapped in an echo chamber. This can be dangerous, and 92% of our respondents agree.

According to a survey conducted in March this year by Statista, 39% of their 1,008 Singaporean respondents revealed that they have been spending more time on social media because of COVID-19.

Echo chambers not only reinforce our stances, they also block out opposing viewpoints, which feeds confirmation biases, builds mob mentality and an intolerance to points of view that differ from our own. This could then result in a mass cancelling of individuals who hold less popular beliefs.

In I Have a Question’s first episode, cast member Farisha Ishak brought up a pertinent point that “a lot of the time, cancel culture gets lost in the individual because people are so focused on vilifying the individual,” so much so that the root cause of the problem is forgotten, which is what we should be tackling instead.

Cast member Joel Lim seconded these thoughts. He said that cancel culture today has cultivated the mindset that “it’s cool to call people out” and that “it’s cool to demonise people online.” He added that these individuals feel as if they have this “moral superiority to call someone out,” and that sometimes, unpopular, controversial viewpoints go viral precisely because it only takes one person to shout about it for their entire community or mob to rally against said unpopular opinion.

This is what happened to Joanna Theng and Jaime Wong earlier this year.

Between July 20 to 22, City Revival, a local Christian community, uploaded a series of videos featuring local artiste Joanna Theng and City Revival founder Jaime Wong unpacking the book of Revelations in the Bible. In the third instalment of the series, the pair shared their interpretations of how the mark of Satan can be found within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

This sparked massive outrage among the local LGBT community and their supporters, with thousands of Instagram users leaving comments on said video, as well as on Theng’s personal account. While a number of these commenters attempted to open up meaningful discussion, a large majority of them chose to personally attack and cancel Wong and Theng instead. This prompted Wong to post a public video apology on City Revival’s page upon removing the offensive video, and Theng to personally apologise on her account and take a short break from social media. Though this did not seem to satisfy many users, the event eventually died down.

In light of these instances, our respondents remain divided when asked if cancel culture does more good than bad in our current social context, and if cancel culture helps to deliver swift justice.

On one hand, cancel culture leaves no room for discussion. It is emotionally-charged with anger and dictates a clear right and wrong in any situation, and the wrong is metaphorically lynched from the online sphere. On the other hand though, cancel culture can help to lend a voice to the marginalised, or to individuals let down by the legal system.

On April 19 last year, then National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Monica Baey posted a series of viral Instagram stories recounting her experience of being filmed in the shower by a fellow student in November the previous year. Her stories revealed NUS’s unsatisfactory sentencing of the offender and their lack of support for her wellbeing. Baey also revealed the identity of said offender in her posts, who was swiftly cancelled on social media.

Baey, on the other hand, received strong support from the public who fought for her, and the incident was widely covered in local and international media. NUS also stepped up their efforts in providing support for victims of sexual misconduct on campus, and as Baey puts it, “Change has finally come”.

In this instance, cancel culture arguably did help to deliver justice by expediting positive change in NUS’s system, but one can only wonder if there could have been a better way to achieve this. Perhaps on a more private domain, or on a less emotionally charged scale.

As Lim mentioned on I Have a Question, “the world isn’t black and white.” There isn’t always a right or wrong to every issue, and everyone has flaws that we have to learn to accept.

Either way, the big question remains: does social media divide more than it unites? Join our community group and let us know what you think! We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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