If you use social media, you’ve most likely heard the term “cancel culture.” Even in the news on television and pop culture referencing, cancel culture is cited in every way from serious news to comedy memes. But do you know what cancel culture really is, how it’s affecting society today, and what it might mean for changes in social media and our culture in the future?

What does “cancel culture” actually mean?

The term “cancel culture” itself is vague and has become a catch-all for various situations with different degrees of severity and impact.

Cancel culture is generally referenced when a person, organization or business does something that is considered controversial, resulting in a backlash that usually results in another group calling out or “cancelling” them in return. The action of cancelling can include anything from boycotting to banishment to legal or financial ramifications.

Over the last few years, the term became more mainstream as prominent figures and brands became targets. Some high-profile examples include:

  • Kevin Hart dropped out of hosting the 2019 Oscars after public outcry over old homophobic tweets resurfaced.
  • Food writer Alison Roman’s New York Times column put on hiatus after she made disparaging comments about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo in an interview.
  • Actress Gina Carano, most recently of Disney’s “Mandalorian” fame, dropped by Lucasfilm and her talent agency after controversial tweets.
  • Public calls for boycott of Goya, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the U.S., after CEO Robert Unanue praised President Trump during an event at the White House.
  • Six Dr. Seuss books pulled from publishing due to racist and insensitive images.

The pros and cons of cancel culture

Where some see accountability – others see censorship and fear.

Critics of cancel culture say the process stifles free expression, inhibits the exchange of ideas and keeps people from straying from their comfort zones. Many have surmised that social media users are using the term cancel culture as a form of online bullying. According to Dr. Steven Mintz, as written for The Ethics Sage, “…cancel culture is a phenomenon with wide-reaching effects on American culture in all forms. From politicians to famous authors, sports figures, entertainers, and everyone in between, cancel culture is dangerous because it seeks to deny someone the freedom of speech. It stifles dissent and creates an environment of fear in the minds of those cancelled by the public.”

Others, however, argue that the cancel culture movement has empowered people to challenge the status quo while demanding accountability from those in positions of power or wealth.

Research organizations and mental health researchers have cited the dramatic increase of the cancel culture phenomenon during the pandemic due to the fact that many people were restricted to homes and spent dramatically more time on social media, the place where cancel culture seems to be the strongest.

Social media has certainly changed the way people communicate, providing more ways to connect than ever before. But in many ways, such as with cancel culture, if it’s used wrong, it can divide people even more and focus energy in an unproductive way. The next time you find yourself looking at a hashtag campaign that encourages cancelling action, instead of clicking, forwarding or adding to the conversation right away, take a moment, take a step back, and educate yourself on the issue before taking action.