James Charles, Tati Westbrook and the Chaos of Cancel Culture

Alexa Tietjen

It started with a video — or was it an Instagram Story promoting vitamins?

James Charles and Tati Westbrook — and Jeffree Star, who inserted himself into the fray somewhere along the way — have publicly put an end to the virtual maelstrom that moved millions. The highly publicized back-and-forth between 20-year-old Charles, who shot to Internet stardom in 2016 when CoverGirl named him its first male spokesmodel, and 37-year-old Westbrook, Charles’ mentor who is credited as one of the first beauty influencers, centered around a social media post promoting vitamins and mushroomed over allegations of sexual harassment.

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The exchange took off on May 10 with Westbrook’s “Bye Sister” video and snowballed online for a full nine days until Charles declared a truce on his Twitter account. The drama initially cost Charles about 3 million subscribers — he ultimately gained back about 2 million — while Westbrook gained nearly 4 million subscribers. YouTuber Tea4Real even posted a video supposedly showing Charles’ and Westbrook’s subscriber counts changing in real time, and YouTube has since announced it will change the way it displays subscriber counts.

Cancel culture is nothing new to the online world. It’s like a virtual boycott, but potentially more dangerous because of the uncontrollable nature of social media. It usually happens like this: a celebrity or personality is accused of doing or saying something deemed so egregious by social media users, they collectively “cancel” the person in question, posting “receipts” in attempts to damage his or her career. The canceling sometimes includes a Twitter hashtag party — in this case, #JamesCharlesIsOverParty — which is apt to go viral, jettisoning the canceled person to the Internet’s abyss, temporarily or permanently.

“Cancel culture is a byproduct of our ability to advocate for ourselves on social media,” said Angelica Nwandu, founder of popular Instagram account The Shade Room. “It comes from a great place, but what I’ve suggested is that we cancel the behavior and not the person because it’s becoming a toxic movement. It’s not allowing anyone to make a mistake.”

YouTube’s beauty community is well acquainted with cancel culture — new feuds emerge as often as new makeup palettes. But the Charles-Westbrook fiasco is the largest drama to date. That’s owing, in part, to the sloppiness of the accusations hurled and receipts pulled, as well as the speed with which those watching ran off with unconfirmed facts. The feud quickly became an example of what not to do on the Internet (i.e., spread false or unsubstantiated information) and an embodiment of cancel culture at its worst.

And whereas traditional celebrities can often recover from a “scandal” through talk shows, a critically acclaimed album or a new movie role, for influencers, it’s harder: their product is their platform.

“It’s a live by the sword, die by the sword world,” said Erik Gordon, professor at The University of Michigan Ross School of Business. “If your biggest asset is the attention you attract on social media, then being canceled cancels your worth. It cuts your power as an influencer and it cuts your value as an influencer. It cuts your value to marketers, which may well happen with Charles. It also cuts your value to your remaining followers, who want to see the social proof that they’re following the right person.”

Cancel culture has the potential to seriously harm one’s business, as Charles noted in his “No More Lies” YouTube video, uploaded on May 18. It’s unclear if and how Westbrook’s business was impacted — the web site for her ingestibles brand, Halo Beauty, remains intact — though the drama did have an effect on Charles’. In his video, Charles said he took down the web site for his Sisters Apparel brand — named after Charles’ fanbase, the Sisters — in light of Star’s participation in the drama. Star, who has a track record of public falling-outs with other beauty YouTubers, owns Killer Merch, the distribution company for Sisters Apparel.

“Unfortunately, I had to sever ties with Killer Merch,” said Charles in his video. “I just don’t see a role that exists where I could ever be in business with a team run by someone like Jeffree Star.”

Charles has also canceled his Sisters Tour, prices for which ranged from $22 to $336 on SeatGeek. Killer Merch and SeatGeek could not be reached for comment. YouTube declined to comment.

“The online social media world is a huge, self-amplifying echo chamber,” said Gordon. “If that’s where you live, and somebody drops a paper clip, 90 minutes later, it sounds like a thunderstorm.”

“With James Charles, all they had to do was say he was a sexual predator that preyed on straight men and that’s all people needed to hear,” said Nwandu. “It’s demonizing people to the point where we’re saying you can’t make a mistake and come back from it.”

The potential for cancelation causes anxiety among celebrities and influencers — Nwandu often speaks with celebrities about this. It is also “spooking” brands, said Brian Freeman, chief executive officer and cofounder of Heartbeat, a technology platform and app that connects brands with Millennial and Gen Z audiences.

We’ve seen that there’s a lot of concern with brand safety at the influencer level,” said Freeman. “It’s impacting why brands are more interested in working downstream with people who have smaller audiences.”

Freeman suggests that brands working with influencers “be upfront” about their influencer process with the general public and come up with a “code of ethics that you expect our partners to abide by — and make that public.” That way, if an influencer goes off the rails, the brand can refer its audience to its ethical code and reevaluate its influencer relationship accordingly.

Cancel culture becomes dangerous when it is amplified to the point of no return. As YouTubers, Charles and Westbrook have a responsibility to use their platforms to foster nontoxic environments. The advantages to this — positive content, a less problematic channel, better brand relationships, less possibility of cancelation — outweigh the disadvantages. But beyond platform creators, the general public, who is largely responsible for perpetuating cancel culture, has a responsibility, too. And it starts with the media.

When James Charles was called a sexual predator, all of the top web sites were reporting on that,” said Nwandu. “Media should have a responsibility to say these are unconfirmed reports, that there is no evidence.”

But while media outlets should be held accountable for the role they play in cancel culture, said Nwandu and Gordon, social media platforms should not.

Social media platforms are just utilities,” said Nwandu. “Unless somebody’s life is in danger, they shouldn’t intervene in the people’s conversation.”

“On the one hand, you feel [social media platforms] should control serious misinformation, seriously harmful things,” said Gordon. “And on the other hand, should social media platforms be focusing their efforts at the misinformation problems of politics and national policy and sexism and racism, without diverting resources to spats between Charles and Westbrook?”

Finally, there is a definite responsibility on the part of viewers not to play into cancel culture — something both Westbrook and Charles requested of their followers in their final feud-related uploads.

“Please don’t name-call in my name,” said Westbrook in her “Why I Did It” video. “I feel like a very public conversation was had between myself and James Charles and I’m sad that it had to get to that, but he did publicly apologize and I’m just hoping that we can leave it at that and close this up and that people can drop this and move forward and let some actual healing happen.”

“Joining in on bandwagon hate and cancel culture is incredibly, incredibly toxic,” said Charles in his “No More Lies” video. “It’s very concerning to me that, as a society, we’re becoming OK with guilty until proven innocent instead of the other way around. I truly hope that everyone who participated in this, whether it be fans, influencers, drama channels or ‘credible news sources’ take the time to think about your words and the impact that they may have on others because I assure you and I promise you, it’s a lot stronger than what you may think.”

More from WWD.com:

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