In March, Alexi McCammond, the newly hired editor of Teen Vogue, resigned following backlash over offensive tweets she’d sent a decade ago, beginning when she was 17. In January, Will Wilkinson lost his job as vice president for research at the center-right Niskanen Center for a satirical tweet about Republicans who wanted to hang Mike Pence. (Wilkinson was also suspended from his role as a New York Times Opinion contributor.)
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.
That suggests a different way of thinking about the amorphous thing we call cancel culture. Cancellations — defined here as actually losing your job or your livelihood — occur when an employee’s speech infraction generates public attention that threatens an employer’s profits, influence or reputation. This isn’t an issue of “wokeness,” as anyone who has been on the business end of a right-wing mob trying to get them or their employees fired — as I have, multiple times — knows. It’s driven by economics, and the key actors are social media giants and employers who could change the decisions they make in ways that would lead to a better speech climate for us all.
Boundaries on acceptable speech aren’t new. What is new is the role social media and digital news plays in both focusing outrage and scaring employers. Social platforms and media publishers want draw people to their websites or shows. They do this, in part, by surfacing content that outrages the audience.
My former Times colleague Charlie Warzel points to Twitter’s trending box as an example of how this works. This box is where Twitter directs everyone to topics drawing unusual interest at the moment. Oftentimes that’s someone who said something stupid or offensive — or even someone who said something innocuous, only to have it misread as stupid or offensive.
The trending box blasts missives meant for one community to all communities. The original context 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.
This is not just a problem of social media platforms. Watch Fox News for a night, and you’ll see a festival of stories elevating some random local excess to national attention and inflicting terrible pain on the people who are targeted. Fox isn’t anti-cancel culture; it just wants to be the one controlling that culture.
Cancellations are sometimes intended and deserved. Some speech should have consequences. But many of the people who participate in the digital pile-ons don’t want to cancel anybody. They’re just joining in that day’s online conversation.
In all these cases, the economics of corporations that monetize attention are colliding with the incentives of employers to avoid bad publicity. Social media has made public relations problems harder to ignore. Outrage that used to play out relatively quietly, through letters and emails and phone calls, now plays out in public. Hasty meetings get called and people get fired.
People should be shamed when they say something awful. Social sanctions are an important mechanism for social change. The problem is when that one awful thing someone said comes to define their online identity, and then it defines their future economic and political and personal opportunities. Most of us don’t deserve to be defined by the dumbest thing we’ve ever said, just because Google’s algorithm noticed that that moment got more links than the rest of our life combined.
This suggests a few ways to make online discourse better. Twitter should rethink its trending box and the role of quote-tweets. Fox News should stop being, well, Fox News. All of the social media platforms need to think about the way their algorithms juice outrage and supercharge the human tendency to police group boundaries. The rest of corporate America — and that includes my own industry — needs to think seriously about how severe a punishment it is to fire people under public conditions.
We are creating a society in which more people can speak and have some say over how they’re spoken of. What I hope we can do is keep that fight from serving the business models of social media platforms and the shifting priorities of corporate marketing departments.
Klein is a New York Times columnist.