Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been numerous instances of social media users posting angrily about celebrity controversies.
Insider reached out to psychologists and a PR expert for insight on the rise of cancel culture during the pandemic.
Experts argued that while a sense of community can arise from online negativity, it could also provide a useful framework for spreading awareness and seeking solace during a hard time.
Every morning since the start of Los Angeles' stay at home order, I've begun my day with two rituals — I tweet a photo of Britney Spears to commemorate a new sacred day of quarantine and then sift through my feed to see the latest cancel culture fiasco that has sprung up while I was asleep. During the last nine weeks, internet denizens are seemingly chomping at the bit, eager to cancel anyone whether it's a moderately famous New York Times recipe guru, a multi-millionaire makeup mogul, a late-night comedian, or an up-and-coming rapper.
Of course, these powerful people are always ripe for criticism, having come out on top of our inherently unfair capitalistic system, but the clear escalation of internet drama on social media may also be due to the added stress and anxiety of quarantine. Insider reached out to a few experts to get their insight on if there is a psychological reason behind this endless barrage of cancelations.
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Internet users are either reacting to a public figure's microaggressions or sleuthing through their past
Photo by Jana Legler/Redferns
On May 20th, Jia Tolentino, a writer for The New Yorker, took to Twitter to share a blog post responding to a rumor circulating that her parents were involved in a human trafficking ring in Houston, Texas. In her blog post, entitled "Listen, I Wanted Quar Gossip Too," she compared her online skewering to two other public figures whose respective parents' pasts had been closely examined by sleuths — Arca, a DJ, and Mitski, a singer-songwriter. In the last month, internet users have tried to milk some controversy out of Arca's father being a Venezuelan investment banker and alleged that Mitski's father was a C.I.A. agent. And now, it was Tolentino's turn to respond to allegations about her parents that had metastasized into a trending topic.
But within a day, Tolentino's parents would be replaced by a new controversy du jour. On May 21st, Lana Del Rey dusted off her typewriter to churn out an album promotion statement that seemed designed to set Stan Twitter aflame. In an Instagram post, the "Brooklyn Baby" singer complained that while female artists such as Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, and Beyoncé have all racked up commercial success by singing raunchy lyrics, music journalists have unfairly accused her of glorifying abusive relationships. Critics lampooned the star for carelessly claiming that she was more unfairly treated than various women of color. By the time she put out a statement clarifying her original post, however, there was something new to angrily tweet about: social media users discovered that a few years ago, Doja Cat participated in what appeared to be an incel-friendly chatroom and recorded a song with allegedly dog-whistling lyrics. #DOJACATISOVERPARTY began trending and Lana Del Rey's blunder was rendered irrelevant. A couple days later, the feed was an etch-a-sketch: a video resurfaced from twenty years ago of Jimmy Fallon donning blackface to impersonate Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live.
Whether it's reacting to microaggressions or sleuthing through a public figure's past, quarantine has seemingly triggered an appetite for bringing celebrities down a peg. The evidence has always existed online. Why are we choosing to surface it now?
Experts suggest that internet users are seeking connection and solace through quarantine canceling
Psychologists have sounded the alarm that in addition to contracting Covid-19, the public also runs the risk of developing severe mental health issues because of the intense isolation of quarantine and general anxiety of living through such a sweeping crisis.
Karen North, a Clinical Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California, explained to Insider how canceling can be a way for people online to find community and solace. "We all know the 'phrase misery loves company,' but when researchers have looked at that, what they find is that when people are miserable, they don't just want company, they want people to share in the misery. So, misery loves miserable company," she elaborated.
North claims that public figures serve as an ideal common enemy and that the "appeal of angry activities online is probably amplified by people's frustration and misery in today's environment." John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University and author of Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric, said that the way internet users often relate to celebrities is an example of "transference reactions."
"People unconsciously perceive the celebrity as being like some significant other in their lives. They then transfer their feelings about that person, often strongly negative ones, onto the celebrity," he claimed.
With social media, celebrities have given the general public the illusion of intimacy by acting like they are everyone's favorite friend — they live-stream themselves cooking meals, open up about their breakups, and partake in the latest trending TikTok challenge. While many public figures have capitalized off of having an interactive personal brand, this mentality may also result in people believing that they are merely gossiping and inquiring details about someone who they actually know.
"The difference with digital that we've never seen before is that it makes people feel like there is a personal connection and that they are personally involved even when they're not," Dr. North concluded. She said that since people interface with celebrities using the same devices they use to also communicate with friends, they can't help but mistake them as acquaintances.
She theorizes that sleuthing through a celebrity's past becomes a meme in itself, and after one public figure is exposed, this encourages other internet users to find a new target. "It used to be that if we found gossip about somebody, we can only tell our immediate friends. But now there is a platform for exposing it and trying to see how much traction or how many views or likes our own research can receive. And so it's become a bit of a game," she argued.
Quarantine canceling speaks to the predicaments celebrities face broadcasting their lives during the pandemic
North related the rise of canceling to other instances during the last couple of months where celebrities faced a backlash for showcasing their lavish quarantine setups.
Ellen DeGeneres, for example, got into some hot water after she clumsily drew parallels between self-isolating in a multi-million dollar mansion and being in prison. In that instance, a swift online backlash became an outlet for people to express their frustration with their own situation. North noted that over the course of the crisis, celebrities have become more strategic about where they are posting content from, situating themselves in part of their estates that appear modest.
Erin A.Vogel, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, echoed North's assessment. "Social media has given us more access to the details of celebrities' lives than ever before. Digging around for clues about a celebrity's life may give people a sense of accomplishment. It can feel like celebrities aren't human, and some people may find comfort in realizing that celebrities are imperfect too," she wrote in an email to Insider.
A torrent of online backlash may become harsh and intensely personal, but it's often motivated by legitimate qualms with bigotry or class. Many of these quarantine canceling instances bring forth conversations about how pop culture continues to become more attuned to bigotry. For example, the resurfaced Fallon clip of him doing blackface on SNL shows that mainstream comedy has shifted away from accepting blatantly racist humor as normal.
Sean D. Young, the Executive Director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology, argued that while these online mobilizing frameworks can be harnessed for spreading awareness about important issues and dispeling stigmas, cancel culture falls into a gray area. "At what point are you doing it to bring awareness [to bigotry] and try to bring some positive impact and try to prevent it from being done again and at what point is it just bullying? If you're making claims with no proven information, and you're making it just to gain an audience, then that would be more likely malicious intent," he said.
A PR expert said celebrities should minimize engagement with online drama
Eileen Koch, the founder of Los Angeles based EKC PR, advised that celebrities should try their best to stay above the drama because not all of them are "emotionally strong" enough to interact with random social media users. "You're not dealing on a fair basis. You're not in a court where it's controlled," she noted.
According to Koch, if a public figure makes a mistake, they should keep their apology to a minimum. "Less is more, if there's something that you really did and you're owning up to it, there's nothing wrong with saying 'I'm sorry.' But if it's someone's negative opinion, then you're just going to fuel the fire," Koch suggested.
Following Koch's logic, during the days following her Instagram post, Lana Del Rey extended the PR fiasco by doubling down on the controversy and posting more defiant comments and videos that half-heartedly clarified her initial statement. Conveniently, many of these social media posts garnered attention for her upcoming projects. On the other hand, Jimmy Fallon issued a simple mea culpa over the resurfaced blackface video and presumably, will be able to move on in no time.
The PR agent said that any online backlash regarding celebrities' lavish lifestyles is unwarranted because that's just the reality of the rich and famous. "You're looking at celebrities! Of course they're going to be in a beautiful home. Even if they go in their basement, it's nicer than what most people have. If you can't handle it, then don't don't look at celebrities and don't listen to them," Koch said.
Quarantine canceling may make our online lives feel more morally important
People spending more time online doesn't mean they are finding entertainment or distraction on these platforms. However, canceling can serve as an activity that may make online life seem more moralistic and important. Twitter user Jack S, who joined in on the #LanaDelReyIsOverParty hashtag, told Insider that he didn't necessarily think he would be able to end the singer's career but rather was engaging with the uproar to have larger conversations about white privilege, and ensure that his views were publicized to a wider audience.
"It's fun to just scroll through the tag because a lot of the jokes people made about the Lana situation specifically were pretty excellent," he said.
But he acknowledged that there was something a bit futile about it all, remarking that ultimately, Lana Del Rey would be fine —"She's going to be forgiven because that's always what happens when a celebrity is canceled. It trends over the course of a few days, some people will continue to dislike the artist for what they did, the amount of which varies based on the severity of what they said, and their fans will continue to like them as if nothing happened."
For those few hours before the next online controversy, however, Lana Del Rey was an abstraction that Jack could discuss with other Stan Twitter accounts. He said it wasn't about seeking community because he already feels "somewhat attached to the Stan twitter community in general" and frequently discusses artists with his "mutuals."
It was just another day in his niche corner of the internet.