Cancel culture is quite the buzzword and everyone seems to have their own definitions of it. it’s like a modern-day version of the Salem witch trials, except instead of burning witches at the stake, we’re just burning reputations on social media, and it’s created an environment toxic enough to make you want to go back to the good old days of 56 Kbps, A/S/L, and ICQ
Channel NewsAsia says it’s “a concerted effort to withdraw support for the figure or business that has said or done something objectionable until they either apologise or disappear from view”. Another definition characterises cancel culture as the phenomenon of people using online tools such as online petitions, hashtags or public social media posts to undermine or harm the reputation or livelihood of individuals and organisations that are often seen as influential and powerful.
In a 2022 interview with Bloomberg, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam compared cancel culture to a virtual version of gang violence, saying: “We won’t allow five people to gang up and beat you up. That’s against the law. It seems to be possible and happens in a virtual sense, on the Internet.”
But fear not, the Ministry of Law is on the case. Apparently, they’re looking at ways to deal with the harm caused by cancel culture and online cancel campaigns.
What’s The Problem?
It is often said that freedom of speech is the “lifeblood” of democracy. From this perspective, cancel culture poses two significant threats to democratic discourse.
Firstly, cancel culture harms democratic discourse by inflicting consequences on individuals and organisations for expressing views that others find disagreeable or offensive, even when these views don’t infringe any laws.
This results in a chilling of free speech where people fear expressing their views on societal issues for fear of suffering the wrath of the mob armed with pitchforks and hashtags. In a shame-honour culture like Singapore’s, reputational damage via the loss of face and name means something, not to mention the impact on the rice bowl. And if this takes root, it prevents ideas from being properly fielded, debated, weighed and decided upon.
Secondly, cancel culture fuels societal division and polarisation when different groups in society seek to “cancel” one another. During the 2022 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned against going down the road of certain “Western societies” where there are “culture wars, contempt for opposing views – not just for their views but for the opposing people, cancel culture to browbeat and shut up opponents, and bitter feuds splitting society into warring tribes”.
Critics who disagree with the above view often claim that cancel culture is a means to hold people “accountable” for wrongdoing, and that the threat posed by cancel culture is grossly exaggerated. But let’s get real, cancel culture can quickly turn into a high-tech version of Lord of the Flies.
Critics May Disagree, but…
And besides, it’s not a fair fight. In many instances, the targets of cancel culture are the only ones being held “accountable”, whereas the accusers who are pushing for “cancellation” avoid accountability for their words and actions. They get away with this because of the sheer number of the mob, unverified or yet-to-be-verified information, and the cloak of online anonymity.
Like a game of dodgeball where only one team gets to throw the balls, this is disproportionate and unfair. Accountability must go two ways, and cancel culture cowardly avoids this by avoiding due process.
Besides, the unrestrained nature of cancel culture often descends quickly into a form of bullying (online or offline) and harassment, which is harmful on an individual and societal level – imagine living in the script of Mean Girls. From this lens, cancel culture is vindictiveness masquerading as justice.
We should, as a society defend the freedom of opinion insofar as race, religion, the integrity of impartial organs of the state, and demonstrable falsehood are not used to stoke enmity.
Possible Solutions for Cancel Culture?
In a world where individuals and groups in society can potentially rally as a mob against particular individuals or organisations, it becomes possible for people to be silenced, particularly if their views are unpopular or in the minority. Thus, solutions to cancel culture are about – in the words of Minister Shanmugam – finding “the right balance between free speech and aggressive attacking of others to curtail their free speech”.
In other words, we need to establish rules of engagement that protect free speech while preventing aggressive attacks on others.
What are some possible solutions?
1. New Law Combatting Cancel Culture
New laws appear to be on the cards. An article published in Law Gazette has argued that the legislation “should cover only cancel campaigns”, and should be narrowly defined so that it does not capture conduct that is “reasonable, fair, and justified”.
Good start, but this is too narrow.
Sure, cancel culture laws should strike a fair balance between reasonable criticism and objectionable conduct, but cancel culture is not limited to “campaigns”.
Consider the following example. A person posts on social media that “transwomen are not real women”. The next day, her employer is flooded with emails, social media posts and phone calls, demanding that the person be fired from her job. Cowed by the pressure, the employer fires her.
Is this a campaign, or just numerous ideologically-motivated people doing the same thing? If the victim of the ‘campaign’ decides to sue, must she prove that the people were somehow acting in concert?
Protections will need to be in place for legitimate expression of opinion. The threshold to access these protections should not be set so high as to render the protections meaningless. The laws against cancel culture should also dovetail with employment protections, such as the latest enhancements to the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices aimed at protecting employees’ diverse cultures, values and beliefs.
2. Regulating Social Media
They said it was impossible, and Minister Shanmugam said, “Hold My Beer”.
Defying the odds in the battle for truth, Singapore has found ways to address online falsehoods and harms in the past, such as with the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). There have also been various amendments to protect online safety passed by Parliament in 2022, and a planned Online Criminal Harms Act as well. These laws and proposed laws are applicable to social media services, such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.
A government with sufficient political will could create new laws that either empower the government or allow persons to apply to court for various measures to tackle cancel culture. For example, it could create a framework where a person being “cancelled” on social media can apply for an order to stop or remove social media content that facilitates such efforts. You know, like how it deals with falsehoods via POFMA.
While such laws are possible, time is of the essence. Given the speed at which things can go “viral” on social media, a person must be able to obtain a court order very quickly, or else the damage may already be done by the end of a long-drawn court process.
(Psst: If you’d like to check out some of our earlier thoughts on Cancel Culture and Political Censorship, you can do so here.)
3. Unmasking: Addressing Online Anonymity
Another option is to address online anonymity, which will tackle cancel culture to the extent that it is done under the cloak of online anonymity.
In 2022, the Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill 2022 was laid before the Australian Parliament. The Bill sought to empower Australians to ‘unmask’ the originators of anonymous defamatory posts made on social media, where the material is posted in Australia. Alas, the Bill lapsed when the Australian Parliament dissolved in April 2022.
Not to be outdone by Kangaroo Jack, perhaps Singapore can learn from Australia’s experience and develop our own solutions that help us protect truth and civility.
Now, lest introverts anonymous gets miffed, we should probably also note that online anonymity is not always wrong, and the basic privacy of internet users should be respected. A balance will need to be struck between protecting the privacy of online users and the abuses of online anonymity to commit illegal acts, including defamation, harassment, and the spreading of falsehoods.
Thus, the circumstances under which users can be ‘unmasked’ should be carefully circumscribed, and the use of any user-related information should be properly restricted in order to protect privacy.
4. Public Education on Cancel Culture
Yet another option to respond to cancel culture is through public education.
This seems to be a key part of education policy since, following the announcement that Section 377A of the Penal Code would be repealed, the Ministry of Education made clear that “Bullying and cancel culture must not take root in our educational institutions and society.”
As the concern about cancel culture is not limited to schools, it seems likely that the Government will make a concerted effort to educate the public about the harms and risks of cancel culture. These could range from government statements, media campaigns, dialogue sessions and more, all aimed at promoting norms emphasising respect for differences in views. Or maybe we could get a cartoon lion to tell us to behave ourselves or he’ll quit again.
The efforts that the Singapore Government is exploring to address cancel culture are a step in the right direction. Of course, all of the options raised above are non-exhaustive and not mutually exclusive; the Government could choose to adopt more than one option and there could be other options that have not been covered in this article.
However, would government-led solutions be what we need, or should more be done to deal with the root motivations of cancel culture?
This article is the second in a series of pieces on Cancel Culture. Check out the first one here.