In March, Alexi McCammond, the newly hired editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, resigned following backlash over offensive tweets she sent ten years ago, starting at the age of 17. -Right Niskanen Center for a satirical tweet about Republicans who wanted to hang Mike Pence. (Wilkinson was also suspended from his role as an opinion contributor to The New York Times.)
To debate the fairness of these sanctions is to make a category error. These are not judged and pronounced verdicts on behalf of the company. It was the actions of interested organizations that had decided that their employees were now liabilities.
It suggests a different way of thinking about the amorphous thing we call the cancellation culture. Cancellations – defined here as the actual loss of your job or livelihood – occur when an employee’s word violation generates public attention that threatens an employer’s profits, influence, or reputation. It is not a “wake up call” issue, as anyone who has been on the business side of a right-wing mob trying to get them or their employees fired – as I have done on numerous occasions know. It is driven by the economy, and the main players are the social media giants and employers who could change the decisions they make in ways that improve the speaking environment for all of us.
The limits of acceptable speech are not new. What is new is the role social media and digital news play in both attracting attention and scaring employers. Social platforms and media publishers want to attract people to their websites or shows. They do this, in part, by bringing up content that outrage the audience.
My former Times colleague Charlie Warzel cites Twitter’s trending box as an example of how it works. This box is where Twitter directs everyone to topics that are of unusual interest at the moment. Often times it’s someone who said something stupid or offensive – or even someone who said something innocent, only to have misinterpreted it as stupid or offensive.
The trend box explodes missives intended for one community to all communities. The original context collapses; whatever generosity or prior knowledge the target audience might have brought to the interaction is lost. The loss of context is overridden by another feature of the platform: the quote-tweet, where instead of replying in the original conversation, you take the tweet out of context and write something sharp on top of it.
It’s not just a problem of social media platforms. Watch Fox News overnight, and you’ll see a festival of stories raising random local excess to national attention and inflicting terrible pain on those targeted. Fox is not an anti-cancellation culture; he just wants to be the one in control of this culture.
Cancellations are sometimes wanted and deserved. Certain speeches should have consequences. But a lot of people who participate in digital stacks don’t want to cancel anyone. They’re just joining the online conversation that day.
In all of these cases, the economics of companies that monetize attention collide with employers’ incentives to avoid bad publicity. Social media has made PR issues harder to ignore. The outrage that once took place relatively quietly, through letters, emails and phone calls, is now played out in public. Rush meetings are called and people are fired.
People should be ashamed of themselves when they say something terrible. Social sanctions are an important mechanism for social change. The problem is when that terrible thing someone said just defines their online identity, and then it defines their future economic, 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 this moment had more connections than the rest of our lives combined.
This suggests a few ways to improve speech online. Twitter should rethink its trend box and the role of quotes-tweets. Fox News should cease to be, well, Fox News. All social media platforms need to think about how their algorithms stoke outrage and reinforce the human tendency to control group boundaries. The rest of American business – and this includes my own industry – must give serious thought to the severity of the punishment for firing people in public conditions.
We are creating a society in which more people can speak up and have a say in how they talk about themselves. What I hope we can do is stop this fight from serving the business models of social media platforms and the shifting priorities of corporate marketing departments.
Klein is a columnist for the New York Times.