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Cancel Culture in Wartime

Last week, Spotify stopped doing business in Russia. However, unlike a lot of American companies who left in protest against the war in Ukraine, it’s clear that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin wanted Spotify gone. Putin is cracking down on all spaces where Russian people can receive or discuss information that deviates from the story he wants to tell about why this war began, what the Ukrainian people think of it, and why the Russian government is making the right choices here. We at MEDIAGIRLS have talked extensively about how bad actors and unthinking algorithm designs allow misinformation and hate to fester. Spotify often finds itself in the hot seat for fair compensation for artists, the platform it gives to misinformation, and even the technology that enables it to exist. Strangely, a person as vile as Vladimir Putin reminds us of what social media can be: a place for free and open conversations about the world, where people can learn more about themselves and each other. And because of that possibility, Putin is cracking down hard on dissent and chasing away Spotify, Facebook, and anywhere else where Putin’s narrative is under scrutiny.

So what is Putin’s narrative? And what does it have to do with MEDIAGIRLS? In one of the most surreal moments of my online life, Vladimir Putin wants to make the world believe that his situation is the product of cancel culture. That nebulous internet bugbear that ranges so widely in meaning is now, apparently, a political phenomenon he wants the world to pay attention to during a war. 

Of course, there is a reason to punish Putin and his inner circle. There have been reasons for decades, and it’s a little disturbing the West didn’t do nearly enough until he started a war that has left cities in ruins and forced over four million people out of their homeland. But Vladimir Putin has always been a master rhetorician. He knows how to make people see the world the way he wants them to see it. In between the silliness of the cancel culture defense and the destruction in Ukraine, let’s see what we can learn from this playbook to develop savvier media literacy skills.

Let’s start with the obvious: cancel culture is a relatively new term with no clear meaning. Often, “cancellation” is just a person facing consequences for their actions when internet users call them out for their behavior. But because of the cute and flimsy term, the person in the hot seat can pretend that they are the victim of some angry mob with an agenda and never acknowledge their own role in how this discourse came to be. Vladimir Putin is taking the “cancel culture” defense to its illogical extreme by pretending that there are powerful people out there who hate him and Russia, and they are punishing him for no reason. It makes everything simpler, and in a world as messy as this, a lot of people crave simple, digestible perspectives, even if they aren’t the full story or actively conceal the full story.

Canceling campaigns can and have been used as just another form of harassment online. Someone does or says something you disapprove of, and then you devote time and energy to trashing that person in any way you can. Cancelers encourage more people to join the campaign against this person, either as some moral mission to stand up for the (real or invented) problem the person represents, or sometimes just for the fun of yelling at someone on the internet, where you can hide behind your screen name, doing and saying things you would never do in person. 

The reason why I’m skeptical of cancel culture as a real political force is because of how rarely the person being “canceled” faces consequences, at least from the assemblage of angry yellers. Often, the campaigns fizzle out as Internet users find another thing that sparks their interest or draws their ire. They had a good, collective, cathartic scream, and then the problem is just left to hang there. It’s a kind of effortless activism that does not call for any of the hard work it takes to make a better world, and often regular people get caught in the crossfire and have to live with social and psychological scars for years to come.

But, if a person in power can make their supporters believe that cancel culture is a real threat to them, then it’s very easy to make it into a useful political tool. You can frame yourself as a kind of dignified martyr, standing up for what is right and reasonable against a sea of anger and ignorance. Further, anything that the “mob” has to say can be dismissed out of hand on the basis that they are trying to “cancel” you. This is all over the place in American politics. Books and articles and, as we’ve discussed, education materials written in good faith are framed by lawmakers and conservative activists as “canceling” efforts addressed at core parts of their identities. It becomes a moral and highly personal fight for America’s values, our way of life, or whatever other buzzword is relevant at the moment. People devote their time and energy in the public eye warning their supporters that some cabal of villains is trying to force them out of the public eye, and they will destroy decency and civility as we know it unless we can get them to stop talking about [insert thing here].

We’ve all seen the pattern by now. A comedian makes a cruel joke. The public yells at the aforementioned comedian. The comedian adds a new joke about “cancel culture” and continues with their life. A politician proposes some vile legislation. The public yells at the aforementioned politician. The politician makes “cancel culture” part of their platform and moves on. And now, an autocrat has invaded a sovereign nation. The world is appalled and tries to cut him off from his privileges and power. He cannot let his people know the truth because they would inevitably question why he has all of these privileges and power and why he is using them to commit war crimes. So he tells them that “cancel culture” is the true enemy and shuts down anything that might provide more insight, allowing him to continue his crimes in peace.

But Vladimir Putin deserves no peace regarding Ukraine, nor for his decades of corrupt and cruel behavior that led up to this point. Cancel culture is a murky phenomenon, and I doubt that anyone will ever understand it completely. But a good strategy for every girl+ on the internet who encounters a cancellation campaign, or a mention thereof, is to pay attention to the sources. How did this conflict begin? What do the various actors within it have to say? What does each party have at stake? Why do they want this person or phenomenon to be filtered through this specific lens? These questions are foundational to media literacy, and keeping them in mind are how we make sure truth and accountability survive in the digital world.

Katherine Lynch is a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, Mass. She studies Communications and Media with a minor in Marketing. She loves to read, write, and learn about the world, passions she is eager to share with the MEDIAGIRLS community.

Featured Image Courtesy of visuals on Unsplash

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