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  • Writer's pictureMalaz Elnaiem

Cancel Culture: De-anonymizing Sexual Predators and Racists

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

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The age-old practice of public shaming has transcended into the digital world along with most of our social and anti-social interactions. Frequently described as a digital display of mob rule, ‘Cancel culture’ is a polarising and widely debated topic. In this blog post, I will highlight the driving forces behind the phenomenon and address some of its harmful practices.

In September of 1922, Chicago-based criminal lawyer, Patrick H. O’Donnell, published the names of 150 Klansmen in Tolerance, a newspaper dedicated to voicing protest against racial and religious discrimination, as part of an effort to eradicate the Ku Klux Klan who, at the time, claimed to have 100,000 members in Chicago. In the newspaper’s first issue, O’Donnell published a statement reading;

"We feel that the publication of the names of those who belong to the Klan will be a blow that the masked organisation cannot survive. Many Klansmen are in business or the professions and are dependent largely upon the patronage of those groups they classify as alien"(...) (Jackson, 1992, p197).

The following week, 2,700 copies of the issue quickly sold out, prompting the print of another 17,500 that were also exhausted. By the end of that year, Tolerance published thousands of names, and its circulation grew to 150,000, with the majority of readers being members of the Catholic or Jewish faith. By revealing the identities of the Klansmen, O’Donnell de-anonymized them, leaving them open targets to public ridicule and slander. Many members publicly acknowledged the impact the publication had on their reputation. One of the most prominent figures exposed was the president of a local bank, Augustus E. Olsen, who was forced to resign after Catholic and Jewish patrons withdrew their money in protest (Jackson, 1992).

Almost a century later, the practice of publicly shaming and unmasking bigots has become mediatized along with most of our social interactions. According to the United States National Institute of Social Media, 2020 was the year of ‘cancel culture.’

Also known as ‘call-out culture,’ cancel culture describes the act of public shaming and ostracism online. A social media phenomenon whereby people publicly denounce perceived bias and isolate those who have violated social rules or displayed anti-progressive values. American sociology professor Lisa Nakamura stated that “cancel culture is a cultural boycott-- an agreement not to amplify someone or something that has been collectively canceled” (Bromwhich, TNYT, 2020).

The term has become ubiquitous in pop culture and gained some steam during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, particularly after the global Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The expression ‘to cancel’ someone or something first appeared on Black Twitter as a lighthearted term of disdain towards a public figure or a brand; however, over time, it evolved to mean the aggregated activity of outrage and boycotts on social media. The phenomenon demands social change by addressing inequalities and seeking accountability where justice systems have failed. In this article, I will attempt to present a slightly more nuanced account of cancel culture and highlight the privacy concerns and other issues raised by its critics.

Cancel Culture and Democracy

The new-age social media phenomenon is widely credited for amplifying socio-political topics, such as the #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movements, by giving power to disenfranchised voices in the push for structural change. During both instances, individuals who previously felt helpless joined millions in voicing their demands for justice and equality. Even public figures like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were ousted and forced to face consequences due to the effects of cancel culture.

But, as the world’s political climate grows more polarising, so does the debate on the effectiveness of cancel culture. More recently, the phenomenon has become a heated topic of discussion in the context of digital privacy and media ethics. It’s drawn criticism in that it silences open debate and is described as nothing more than a cathartic, short-term release of anger. Some of its harshest critics often describe it as the digital version of mob rule where participants are toxic, irrational, and ready for destruction.

In July 2020, author Thomas Chatterton Williams penned an open letter titled ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.’ Published in Harper’s Magazine and signed by 150 public figures, the piece essentially criticizes cancel culture and all those participating in it.

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty (...).”

It’s presumed that the letter is aimed at online social justice activists, implying that their activities threaten democracy and politics. The letter lacked specific references to real-world incidents and described vague themes such as “editors are fired for running controversial pieces” and “heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” This kind of framing garners sympathy for the offender, portraying them as victims of reckless mob justice.

Aside from the few instances where targets have been misidentified and wrongfully accused, the awaited detrimental effects are yet to materialize. In fact, some of the most prolific cancellations were during the height of the 2017 #MeToo movement— following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations— and were arguably for the greater good. Even then— except for Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and R. Kelly— most public figures accused of sexual harassment have dodged almost all real accountability and long-term consequences. Less than a year after multiple women publicly accused him of sexual misconduct in 2017, Louis C.K. returned to stand-up comedy and performed jokes about being canceled to sold-out arenas.

Moreover, the argument that cancel culture is a frenzied digital mob made up of a group of intolerable internet trolls can easily be disproved. Historically, moral, social, and political concerns drove mass mobilization and collective action. Mobs and movements come with specific demands and use strength in numbers to achieve specific ends. The threat of mob rule to democracy can only be curbed by ensuring the laws and policies protect minorities and individuals from moral panic and demagoguery (Galvez, 2017).

You could argue that democracy is nothing more than organized mob rule and that a culture of accountability is essential for a functioning republic. With this in mind, you may be inclined to believe that those criticizing cancel culture are not threatened by the new modes of public shaming but instead fear a whole new set of critics who now, because of social media, feel empowered to raise their voices and demand change. Perhaps the discourse on the “danger” of cancel culture is merely a smokescreen used to distract us from the real issues at hand.

Doxing Racists and Predators

Internet anonymity has an emboldening effect on us. On the one hand, we feel free to say things we normally wouldn’t out of fear of retaliation or being judged; on the other, when we’re enraged or angered, we may have a heightened response on a scale that we naturally wouldn’t. Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004). Dissociative anonymity is the idea that our online activity has no relation to our real-world identity. It’s one of the principal factors behind the online disinhibition effect and possibly one of the main reasons why cancel culture is such a hot topic.

Like all social and political movements, there will be those who support peaceful protest and absolution and others who advocate for harsher punishments and are willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve those ends. Desired ends may include conventional forms of justice like police intervention or a fine or unconventional forms such as humiliation, harassment, and petitioning to have the target de-platformed or terminated. Arguably, one of the most perilous forms of perceived justice is the act of ‘doxing.’

The term ‘dox’ or ‘doxing’ (verb), also spelled ‘doxx’ and ‘doxxing,’ is an abbreviation of the phrase ‘dropping documents’ and originally referred to as the de-anonymizing of a targeted individual (Douglas, 2016). It has now evolved into a form of online vigilantism whereby internet users target anonymous individuals by publishing their personal information in response to acts perceived as violations. Such violations can range from minor offenses like parking in a disabled spot and public littering to more sinister crimes such as terrorism and pedophilia. Doxing removes a degree of anonymity from the target, making it easier for people to access identity knowledge about the person -- and, with the rise of surveillance capitalism and the frequent use of mobile devices, access to a person’s private details has never been easier.

In 2017, thousands of Twitter users joined Logan Smith, the person behind the Twitter account @YesYoureRacist, to publicly identify and dox several attendees of the ‘Unite The Right’ rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia. In an interview with MSNBC, Smith stated, “If these people are so proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, then I think that their communities need to know who these people are” (MSNBC, 2017).

The usual justifications for revealing a person’s identity are grounded in public interest, safety, and the breaking of social taboos. Take the deanonymization of Michael Brutsch, for example. Brutsch was revealed to be behind the infamous Reddit account ‘Violentacrez’ (Chen, 2012). Brutsch volunteered as a moderator and contributor and oversaw multiple forums, including ‘Jailbait,’ dedicated to publishing pictures of underage girls, and ‘creepshots,’ a forum that features photographs of unsuspecting women. Under his pseudonym, Brutsch deliberately provoked people by posting explicit material while simultaneously protecting his identity and reputation. As a result of the reveal, Brutsch lost his job to the celebration of many.

Admittedly for many, myself included, there’s a sense of vindication that comes from watching abusers reap what they sowed. Brutsch’s public humiliation and condemnation highlighted the disincentive of using a pseudonym to harass, signaling to bystanders that there are societal consequences to anti-social behavior and that justice, after all, is granted through a system of action and accountability.

While holding people accountable for reprehensible acts is morally permissible, as a collective, we must be wary of the real-life consequences digital vigilantism can produce, as it’s easily fueled by sensationalism and misinformation.

Kyle Quinn, a professor at the University of Arkansas, was misidentified as an attendee at the far-right protest after @YesYoureRacist tweeted a pixelated picture of a man who shared a similar build and look. Although Quinn stated that he was over 1,000 miles from where the rally took place, a flurry of internet sleuths jumped at the opportunity to contact his place of work and demand he be terminated. The hundreds of tweets in defense of Quinn gained little to no prominence online.

"I didn't really understand exactly what was going to happen in the days to come. (...) It got to the point then, on Saturday night, where they had tweeted our home address (...) at that time, we definitely got the police involved (...). They're emboldened because they're online and there's no or little consequences for their actions (...); that was definitely the most disturbing part — not knowing what poor decisions this group of people on the Internet could make next." (Quinn, NPR 22017) Transcribed from a podcast on:

Doxing produces unwanted visibility that can be intense and enduring, often leading to real-world, potentially violent threats with lasting implications. Losing anonymity leaves the target vulnerable and open to attacks from those seeking retributive justice.

Cancel culture is a cultural behemoth that refuses to slow down. While it can sometimes be destructive, in most cases, it’s instrumental in addressing inequalities, calling for justice, and holding people accountable. In instances of egregious behavior, we could argue cancel culture is warranted since it amplifies minority voices, empowers historically oppressed groups, and establishes new and inclusive social norms.

To foster an inclusive and socially just society, we must replace the harmful practices and so-called “mob-like” tendencies with tolerance and open discourse— all the while actively working towards dismantling longstanding institutional systems that oppress and suppress the threats to those in power.

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