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How The Media Uses Twitter To Exacerbate Cancel Culture


Shane Gillis will never hear his name in the opening credits of “Saturday Night Live,” but his pre-emptive firing last month—and the way it split the comedy community— was on the forefront of everyone’s mind as the show’s new season premiered. Gillis’s firing predictably prompted some to declare cancel culture has finally gone too far—but we’ve heard that before.

The truth is this essay could have been written when  Scarlett Johansson or Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg faced backlash, and the ensuring debate took over a news cycle. Rather than point fingers at the cancellers or the counter-cancellers, a better way to prevent insignificant slights from defining us is to scrutinize 1) the way social media amplifies these conflicts and 2) how the media often promotes those narratives uncritically.

These incidents involving Johansson, Damon, and Ware are not isolated. Consider also the cases of Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, and Liam Neeson. There’s more where that came from too.

Lest anyone think this is all going in one direction, it should also be noted that no one is immune from the wrath of social justice warriors. Rose McGowan, the erstwhile hero of Me Too, was thrown to the wolves over allegations of transphobia.

Similarly, Rami Malek, who won an Oscar for his depiction of Freddy Mercury, was criticized both for not alluding to Mercury’s homosexuality in his acceptance speech and then for showing a lack of understanding about it. When he finally attempted to clear up the perceived lack of LGBQT support, headlines the next day featured criticisms he mislabeled Mercury as gay when the singer was (probably) bisexual.

As evidence of how pervasive this trend is in the entertainment sphere, pre-eminent Oscar blogger Sasha Stone of Awards Daily championed “Moonlight” in the 2016 Oscar race because she felt “Black filmmakers are often stuck between two worlds – making movies that are true to their culture, history and legacy, and making films that appeal to white critics, white audiences and white industry voters.” Two years later, she practically reversed course on Oscar coverage, against the people championing that type of diversity for fear society was being overtaken by the evils of “woketopians:”

This has greatly impacted how the Oscar race is covered, as bloggers scan each project for un-wokeness. Films by and about white males are mostly fair game for any kind of attack, and hopefully will eventually be just completely shunned. One tweet is all it takes to send a wave of hysteria through the hive mind and suddenly that film, too, is problematic. And anyone who likes the film or votes for the film is likewise caught up in that s—storm.

Stone’s justified annoyance, however, assumes that tweets can do much damage on their own. Unfortunately, entertainment journalists have taken to using tweets as supporting points on their articles (for instance, this article on Matt Groening) and presenting them as representative evidence of the Internet’s reaction.

In situations like this, entertainment media outlets need to be responsible. The challenge of gauging the public mood on an issue is not easy. In some cases, it’s impossible. However, finding three or four angry commenters on Twitter is not just a lazy shortcut, it’s often a form of cherry picking that overrepresents the extreme ends of public opinion.

As Bill Maher said in a monologue on the topic, “When the offended group are identified as the Internet, Twitter, or people, it’s nobody. I guarantee you when you click on the story, the Internet is three losers with a combined following of their mom.”

Here’s how these news cycles unfold:

Step 1) A star will say something that some people find disagreeable.

Step 2) A number of people on Twitter will react angrily.

Step 3) The entertainment media will group a selection of these tweets into an article headlined “[Insert name of star] Receives Backlash,” then a former costar or ex-girlfriend will weigh in and make the controversy even more headline-worthy.

Step 4) People will always look back on the star and note how he received “backlash” as a reference point without discussing the validity of the original complaints.

The day after Johansson fell into cancellation territory, she claimed her quotes were taken out of context to create clickbait. This was a refreshing level of self-awareness to witness because in most cases this new form of Twitter-sourcing is tinting coverage with bias.

A couple of months ago, I attended a comic book convention panel on cultural appropriation and cosplaying. I’ve written negatively about the left’s reaction to issues like cultural appropriation, and engaged in many a shouting match on Twitter over this topic. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the diversity and nuance of views expressed in that room, as well as how much easier we could all understand each other.

The next day at the panel, one attendee spoke of not putting a hard red light on costume appropriation but taking into consideration that how someone wears an outfit is the key question at hand. The discussion shifted to how to respectfully wear a costume of someone else’s culture and whether the issue was really a problem. When many people in the room said they didn’t think so, that opened up another can of worms, showing there are no easy answers.

I can genuinely say that I learned a lot more about cultural appropriation in that 45-minute session than I have through any think pieces or Twitter tirades. The reason? View points involve context and Twitter exchanges generally don’t allow for that. Twitter’s 280-character limit doesn’t allow room to do much more than point a finger and state a quick argument.

The people on the panel I attended spoke from experience and came from the same place of weariness as I. Just as I had my own set of experiences with people being reductionist towards my views, they spoke of what happens when they wear a costume and people don’t like it for reasons that some might see as racist or even race-betraying.

In the same way Twitter and other social media platforms generally don’t allow for context or conducive conversation, the media and its consumers can’t allow that to dominate our conversations about culture.

To prevent such a toxic environment from spreading over the internet, the entertainment media could easily improve by ensuring they’re consistent in their coverage of the controversies, and responsible for toeing the fine line between manufacturing conflicts verses defining them. Again, it’s not easy to accurately gauge the public’s response to a controversy. However, finding three or four angry commenters on Twitter is not a solution.

More importantly, the burden is on consumers like us to not get distracted by soundbites circulated by a small group of social media accounts—otherwise we simply become part of the anger.