The Dirty Little Secret of Cancel Culture

Cancel culture isn’t a singular thing. It’s a collection of strategies and tactics, each designed to use the power of the collective against the individual. Typically, the cancel mob starts with some attacks on Twitter or Facebook. This could escalate into dramatic and accusatory videos on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube, and then goes on from there. Sooner or later, and this is the goal, the news media gets involved, validating those attacks by taking them as legitimate.

The end result is someone gets fired, loses a contract, or a company has its products removed from shelves. People get deplatformed from social media or lose their mass media platforms. It’s a 2021 village shunning with real consequences. The medieval village mob is now a virtual mob but the hysteria is the same.

In today’s cancel culture, the triggers for the cancel mob are often unpopular statements, actions, or decisions, but it doesn’t stop there.

The cancel mob can put a target on your back for not speaking up. For doing business with their primary target. Any unsuspecting individual, organization, or company can be faced at any time with the cancel mob.

The kneejerk response, typically, is to practice realpolitik. That is, to avoid taking a stand that’s based on values, but rather to pragmatically do whatever is necessary to make the mob go away. Find out what they want, do it, hope they leave.

This is akin to paying off extortionists or paying ransom to kidnappers without reporting it to authorities. If history is any teacher, such practices usually embolden societal bullying, allowing it to spread, or become even stronger. In that atmosphere, the likelihood of a return visit by the cancel mob only increases. And the notion that you operate an organization based on certain values rings hollow.

Your First Mistake

The first mistake you can make when the cancel mob comes knocking is to presume it is indeed a mob of actual people with genuine concerns. That it represents a significant share of the population, or even your constituents. Chances are good it doesn’t. It’s more likely that the people involved aren’t even those you would normally deal with under any scenario except for this one. Even more hideous, there is a strong possibility that those social media posts attacking your company aren’t from individual people at all.

Millions of fake accounts across all social media platforms are used to spread disinformation in keeping with an agenda. The easiest way to spot many of these bots is simply to click on the account’s profile and look at its number of followers. If it’s a bot, you’re likely to see that it follows a lot of accounts, posts somewhat regularly, but it may only have 50 or fewer followers. Often as not, it may even have less than 10.

Bots are fake or automated social media accounts. A single person or a small group can operate many thousands of bot accounts simultaneously, generating the same hashtags, the same sort of messages and content, all designed to give the impression that there is a grassroots groundswell of sentiment against you or someone you do business with.

A variation of this is the hired troll who may manage multiple social media accounts under different user names who creates provocative posts designed to get you or others to react. And then of course, there is the “Twitter storm,” which is when an organization orchestrates a coordinated attack on a specific target via Twitter, but it’s designed to look like spontaneous Twitter “backlash.”

If you know that most of this activity is contrived, wouldn’t it make sense to resist the urge to cave to the pressure, at least immediately? Wouldn’t it make sense to stay true to your organization’s values, systems, and processes by addressing any concerns on your own timetable, and not the theirs? Doesn’t it make sense not to overreact in haste?

One caveat involves the news media. It’s not uncommon for the news media to take the bait and presume that a lot of Twitter or Facebook “backlash” against your organization is organic and genuine. In fact, no matter how hard you may try to prove that the social media activity is fake, it may get you nowhere with the news media. The news media tends to follow narratives, and the cancel mob’s narrative -- real or perceived -- can fit nicely with that. Once the cancel mob identifies a target, the news media tends to follow, not lead.

One thing the news media and others will likely want from you is a response. What you must do is remember that you don’t have to accept the premise. You don’t have to reinforce the narrative. You’re not obligated to follow their timetable or their processes. You can put water on the fire simply be being the only cool-headed adult in the room.

Follow Standing Processes

The best way to do this is to follow existing policies and standing processes. Do not deviate from the systems you have in place for dealing with any sort of adversity.

The cancel mob wants to pressure you to fire someone or terminate your relationship with a major customer, supplier, or vendor. Change has to happen, and it has to happen in this news cycle. If it doesn’t happen now, the public may start to see the mob as less powerful and scary. That’s why the urgency.

Chances are you have contracts in place, procedures and due process. In other words, follow the steps you normally take before a contract is terminated, like a review period, a notification period, and dialogue between the parties to try to avoid unnecessary termination of an agreement.

And while some of your people may be employed on an at-will basis, this does not preclude adherence to due process. If the issue involves human resources, employees are often placed on probation prior to a termination decision, and even then, some employees can be suspended while a full review of their employment status is conducted thoroughly and fairly.

Your job is to be deliberate in your decision-making by simply following the systems created for just this purpose. The presence of a cancel mob is no excuse to deviate from the way you do things in the time it takes to do them right.

Just because the cancel culture wants you to fire someone or stop working with a business partner now, you don’t have to comply. Their urgency does not have to be yours. It’s quite sufficient to issue a statement that your organization has been alerted to the concerns and that you plan to follow existing review processes prior to any final decision. Then follow those processes with a commitment to fairness.

You can do the right things for the right reasons without compromising your organization’s values.

Keep in mind that your people and your partners, those who you rely on the most, are watching closely to see if you would have their backs if they were the ones targeted.

Know the Difference Between a Primary Target and a Secondary Target

Let’s say you advertise on a highly visible television or radio program, or podcast. The host of the program gets mired in controversy that may not even be of his or her making.

The cancel mob is usually agenda driven. When it attacks, it’s more likely to be preemptive, but made to look like a response to something. With this in mind, organizations that deploy cancel strategies are constantly monitoring potential targets for anything that can be manipulated into justification for an attack.

Sometimes popularity alone is enough to make the media personality a target for cancel culture.  The cancel mob may disagree with the personality, and therefore that personality must be vilified and smeared and pay the price. By attacking a high-profile personality, that increases the profile of the cancellation attempt.

That’s where you come in. But the key thing to remember is that the media personality is the primary target. That’s who the cancel mob actually wants to hurt.

If you are an advertiser on that program, the cancel mob may threaten you with the wrath of the mob if you don’t cancel your advertising.

What you need to know is that you are a secondary target. Yes, the cancel mob may try to make life uncomfortable for you, but if you have systems in place to stand strong and maintain your own neutrality on the issue at hand without playing into the strategy of the cancel mob, chances are you’ll weather the storm effectively without fundamentally changing the way you do things.

What Are the Risks of Not Giving In?

Sometimes, sticking to a set of organizational values may seem like more hassle than it’s worth. Just this one time, you tell yourself, let’s just give the cancel mob what it wants and then we can focus on what we do best.

The media buy for that radio program can be adjusted in a few clicks on a computer. That at-will employee can be quickly fired. That contract can be cancelled, and it may even be worth it to pay the penalties involved. All to make the problem go away.

Fine. But remember this. People are watching. And they are not bots. Customers are watching. If you tout yourself as nonpartisan, you should continue to keep your business commitments without appearing to endorse the primary target of the cancel mob. Everyone likes loyalty and they can’t stand disloyalty. That’s a character flaw not easily overcome. When organizations exhibit character flaws, it can become a significant reputation problem.

Most people readily understand that you may have acceptable business reasons for the relationship in the first place. But once you react to the cancel mob in haste, you will kill any notion that your organization is nonpartisan. Customers will not see you as a victim. They will see you as complicit in, if not endorsing, the cancel culture movement.

You’re taking a side, very likely against the kinds of people and organizations you need most. That is a major factor in why you were targeted by the mob.  They have to separate you from the people most important to you. The mob has to make you turn your back on those who matter to you. Complicity with the cancel mob equals endorsement.

Your employees are watching. Fire one of your people as part of what could be perceived as an unfair overreaction and the loyalty of your other people will drop considerably and quickly.  Your best performers are the ones likely to notice first, and they will head for the exits.

The dirty little secret behind cancel culture is that it derives its power from your lack of commitment to your own values and standards. It derives its power from lack of resolve and lack of loyalty. The more weakly you adhere to your own cultural values, the stronger the cancel culture’s influence over your organization will become. And once the cancel culture mob gets a taste of that, it can’t resist the urge to come back for more.

Image: Robert Couse-Baker