Communication Law Review

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Volume 23, Issue 2  (2023)

Volume 23, Issue 2 (2023)

Cancel Culture and the Third Persona

M. Elizabeth Thorpe, SUNY Brockport

For critics, the onslaught of “cancel culture” represents censorship taking hold in everyday, public discourse. But excising speech from public discourse, discouraging it, or marking it as unacceptable in certain forums, are some ways in which a society enforces norms and standards. Censorship is, quite literally, the manifestation of the Third Persona. Philip Wander described the theoretical process of creating silenced audiences in his piece, “The Third Persona: An Ideological Turn in Rhetorical Theory.” Wander describes ways in which speech silences or negates audiences, creating a “rejected” audience.Censorship does this in the most literal and straightforward way. Cancel culture cannot be this manifestation of the Third Persona, because it aims not to silence the audience, but is actually the speech of the audience.

Keywords: censorship, third persona, audience, cancel culture, silencing

Social Media Platforms and Cancel Culture: Cashing in on Outrage

Juliet Dee, University of Delaware

Let’s get one thing straight: social media platform executives know that outrage drives user engagement and “engagement drives ad dollars” (Whitehouse, 2022, 111). So, it makes sense that social media platform executives love cancel culture because the more angry people who post their outrage to various platforms, the more “engaged users” the platforms have to sell to advertisers (we the “users” are the actual product as we are sold like cattle to advertisers). Ironically, social media platform executives hope that we will remain unaware of the fact that whenever we post a message to their platform, we are driving engagement, which enhances their salaries.

Cancel culture can cause tangible (economic) harm to its victims. Platform executives would never admit that they want third-parties’ posts to harm targeted individuals, but if they are honest, they would acknowledge that they do not care. They have no reason to care whether or not their users suffer harm because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants them immunity from liability. In other words, we could not argue that the social media platforms intentionally cause harm to certain users, but the platforms’ advertising sales staff might notice a correlation between high user engagement resulting from “cancelling” someone and increased ad sales. Indeed, former Facebook product managers have acknowledged that “their executive compensation system is largely based on their most important metric: user engagement” (Lauer, 2021). Put simply, the platforms make more money when people get angry and try to cancel each other. We will probably not be able to find out how much money platforms earn in boosted ad sales resulting from cancel culture’s increased ad sales because this information is proprietary (Lauer, 2021).

Houston Community College System v. Wilson: Race, Cancel Culture & the Censure

T. Jake Dionne, University of Arkansas

Houston Community College System v. Wilson is a 2022 US Supreme Court case about whether it is constitutional for elected school board officials to censure, or publicly reprimand, one another. Importantly, Wilson generated media coverage as a “cancel culture” case. In this article, I offer a racial rhetorical criticism of Wilson, focusing on what the Black rhetorical tradition can teach scholars about the distinction between the censure and cancel culture. Toward this end, I advance two arguments. First, I analyze digital media coverage of Wilson. I argue that in their coverage of Wilson, legal pundits perpetuated colorblind definitions of cancel culture, effectively downplaying the worldmaking potential of canceling as a Black discursive accountability practice. Second, I analyze Wilson itself. I argue that when read from the perspective of the Black rhetorical tradition on cancel culture, Wilson is a case that shows how the censure is different from canceling in terms of medium, rhetor, and effect. Ultimately, I conclude that Black rhetorical tradition teaches scholars that cancel culture is best understood as a critique of power, while the censure is an exercise in power.

Keywords: cancel culture, censure, digital rhetoric, First Amendment, legal rhetoric, race, racial rhetorical criticism

We’ll be Keeping AI on You! How Artificial Intelligence Could Escalate Cancel Culture

Jason Zenor, SUNY-Oswego

This essay examines how advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) could magnify the perceived problems of cancel culture in our communication ecosystem. First, the essay outlines how AI is already used in the communication ecosystem and the growth of Generative AI. Next, the essay examines how evolving AI advancements could inflame the worst aspects of cancel culture by increasing surveillance, doxing, deepfakes, and algorithmic bias toward outrage. The essay also shows how contemporary privacy and false speech laws offer little protection. Finally, the essay forwards possible legal solutions such as a right to be forgotten, a right to anonymity, and more transparency by tech companies.

Key Words: Artificial Intelligence, Surveillance, Doxing, Deepfakes, Right to be Forgotten, Right to be Anonymous, Cancel Culture

Social Media, Shame, & Students: Teaching about Cancel Culture is Crucial

Brandon Golob, University of California

Social media is a ubiquitous part of college students’ lives. From networking to news, young adults across the nation rely on social media platforms for countless professional and personal reasons. As an educator, I have a longstanding interest in the ways students utilize these platforms and, by extension, how various platforms can be used as pedagogical tools in courses. Specifically, I explore social media as a vehicle for increasing student engagement.

From Cancel Culture to Structural Chilling of Free Speech: A Case Study Approach

Kevin A. Johnson, California State University, Long Beach 

The purpose of this short essay is twofold. First, this essay seeks to highlight the complicated terrain of cancel culture by drawing attention to cases where people are impacted for good, bad, and worse. These effects happen often simultaneously. Second, the essay culminates in a reflection on content neutrality and the limitations of legal remedies to cancelling certain forms of communication. The essay’s central argument is that those who have the most to lose from cancel culture often have relatively the least material resources, whereas those who

have the least to lose from cancel culture often have the most material resources. The net effect of cancel culture may in at least some cases be, therefore, a legal protection of free speech that may paradoxically and structurally chill speech for those who have relatively the

least amount of material resources.

Keywords: Cancel Culture, Chilled Speech, Wealth Disparities, Risk, Child Pornography Laws