If you are developing, you are bound to meet them. This is essentially the price you pay for your success. If you are not successful, the religious extremists will not care about you. — M. Introvigne
The world continues to transform. Today, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are still playing out. People can call the emerging order many things: “black swans”, postcapitalism, postmodernism, Great Reset, multipolar world, etc. But for businesspeople, the important issue is to understand the nature, mechanisms, and trends of change, without which they are doomed to failure.
Security threats faced by businesses have also changed. No longer do they consist mainly of physical crimes or the knock-on effects of world events. Businesses are highly vulnerable in the virtual space where nearly everyone now operates. Shadowy persons-unknown can launch reputational attacks with real-world financial consequences. Threats to businesses have effectively undergone an upgrade, even while real-world threats also persist.
This can destroy the operation of competition and other forms of freedom. In Russia, until very recently, it was easy for any organization to be designated as a cult or as sectarian. The accusers would typically be from the radical segment of the Russian Orthodox Church, and use methods of religious extremism against perceived heretics, while also relying on the state security apparatus. By these means, they achieved not only religious domination, but the capture of markets by a crony network and the exclusion of competitors. The modus operandi is predictable: an opponent will be identified, and then subjected to a barrage of online abuse and vilification. This will lead to the formation of a negative public opinion of the opponent, followed by financial losses or criminalization.
Today in Russia, the same extremist actors have moved away from using religious rhetoric and the “cult” designation. This is a knock-on effect of international events. In Russia, religious extremists have disguised their activity as that of “cult deprogrammers”, seeking to reverse brainwashing. This myth has crumbled and become politically ineffectual after decisions in American courts condemning such practices. The “deprogrammers” have been denounced in the US courts for monstrous and heinous crimes such as kidnapping, sexual abuse, and physical and psychological violence. They have thus had to abandon this particular strategy. However, they pursue the same means of capturing markets and rents and destroying competitors using different means. They now lurk in the shadows, as an invisible army of anticompetitive militants available for future attacks. They, or others like them, could be planning to target your business next. Or maybe they have already done so, but the effects are still unfolding.
These groups also attack people on different scales online. What is often termed “cancel culture” is often an aspect of such attacks.
The euphemism “cancel” sounds like something out of an Orwellian or a Stalinist euphemism book. It refers literally to cancellations of particular projects – a speaker’s presence at an event, a book publication, a movie or TV show, an advertising or sponsorship contract, a business deal. A cancel campaign often results in the cancellation of such things, at great reputational, financial, and psychological cost to those affected. However, it is now used in a broader way, to refer to attempts to eliminate someone and their projects from public space entirely, to throw them and their work into oblivion, at least online and in the media. The term “cancel culture” came into use in the 1980s as a slang term for romantic breakups. Over time, it has become a term for the widespread social media practice of running information/disinformation, hate, and boycott campaigns which operate to render a person or organization toxic, to destroy their reputation, and to disrupt all their social, economic, personal, and financial relationships. A person who is the target of a cancel culture campaign is themselves shunned, boycotted, and removed from social networks, and other individuals or organizations who refuse to shun or ban them are themselves threatened or targeted with cancel campaigns. In this way – with no due process, no real consensus, no right of appeal, no testing or verifying of claims, no protection by rights such as free speech – someone can be silenced, driven off the public Internet, and in the case of businesspeople, their livelihood destroyed. This can be done by small numbers of people, and can sometimes be based on complete fabrications which others are tricked or manipulated into amplifying. The motive need not be moral or political; this method can be used by business rivals to eliminate the competition.
Ostracism has a long history. Ancient city states such as Athens might vote to banish a public figure from the city. Medieval kings might declare someone an outlaw, and church authorities could excommunicate a person, destroying their social standing. McCarthyists in America or KGB officials in the USSR could ruin someone’s life by adding them to blacklists. Today, however, the situation is worse. Ostracism is often worldwide, and tied to personal identities which are caught in webs of surveillance; it is not enough to flee to the next city or country and start over. In the past, only the most powerful rulers or overwhelming majorities of communities could ostracize successfully. Today, a small group of people can destroy somebody’s name very easily, without proof or comeback. In this context, it is vital to study cancel culture on the basis of social sciences and business studies, and to design methods to mitigate its effects.
Cancel culture can be used as a way of holding others accountable for serious crimes or harms, or as part of a campaign of political pressure for worthwhile change. All too often, however, it has today become simply a polarizing and divisive method of harassing adversaries, a tool of social blackmail and of unjust punishment. It is used by the enforcers of a range of religiously-structured doctrines – not just literal religions, but political sects, corporate cultures, academic theories, orthodoxies in various areas, which are constructed around rigid, dogmatic axioms insulated from challenge and promoted by means of charisma and group cohesion. These groups are numerous and it is not possible to avoid the wrath of them all. They use cancel culture as a means to discipline group insiders into toeing the line, to excommunicate “heretics”, and to launch witch-hunts against people opposed to their dogmas or those deemed threatening to the group. In the current environment, cancel culture has evolved into a system of public censure and reputational violence similar to the feared social credit systems used in China. It is often used very simply as a means of harassment, and as a means of unfair competition by actors who cannot maintain their monopoly position through legitimate competition or contestation. While those who take part in cancel campaigns will often be convinced they are doing the right thing and acting on behalf of majority morality or the common good, they can be easily manipulated into attacking thoroughly innocent or undeserving targets whose only crime is to disagree with the campaign organizers or to stand in the way of their capture of markets or other forms of monopoly power. People subject to cancel campaigns face serious consequences, including not just the damage to their reputation and the psychological distress resulting from online campaigns, but often also financial costs from lost business, and even bankruptcy. It is important to emphasize here that cancel campaigns can happen quickly, and that there is no due process and no appeal. A person will be cancelled on being accused, long before a court can determine their guilt or innocence, and their protestations of innocence will be taken as being in denial or doubling down, thereby increasing their guilt. There are no checks of the kind found in responsible journalism, and companies such as social media platforms will often decide on economic grounds to cancel a person so as to avoid losses and reputational danger themselves. Legal and constitutional protections rarely apply to the aspects of someone’s life which are targeted for cancellation: their access to social media platforms and web services, their business relationships, their customer base. Even when a cancel campaign is illegal or unlawful – using methods of defamation or harassment – it is usually impossible to obtain redress through the courts. The adversary who launched the attack will often remain invisible.
An example of how cancel culture plays out is the case of J.K. (Joanne) Rowling, the author of the world-famous Harry Potter book series. Rowling has repeatedly stressed her respect for transgender people, but has expressed opinions on gender and gender identity which are considered offensive by a subset of transgender activists. She expressed views which were rooted in her own experience and provided reasoned arguments for her position. This balanced position did not protect Rowling from receiving a flood of hatred, harassment, and vilification which is completely out of proportion to her supposed offense, and which has continued for many years after she made the comments in question. It is likely that she and others have suffered financial losses, given that the Harry Potter franchise is an enormous commercial operation.
Another such case is that of Johnny Depp, a successful and wealthy actor who was publicly accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife, Amber Heard. In 2016, Heard divorced Depp and obtained a temporary restraining order against him, by claiming that he was physically and verbally abusive to her when intoxicated. Depp denied these claims, and suggested that they were part of an attempt to secure a premature financial settlement from the divorce. A settlement was reached some months later, and Heard lifted the restraining order and signed a joint statement partially retracting her accusations. A security guard present at some of the alleged incidents suggests that it was Heard who repeatedly abused Depp. Depp was never tried or convicted for domestic violence, but was embroiled in a long and expensive series of civil court cases. By this time, however, Depp had been subjected to a massive cancel campaign on the Internet which had effectively destroyed his career. From being one of the world’s most sought-after actors, he became a pariah and virtually unemployable. His earnings from movies fell from $35 million in 2017 to $4 million in 2018 – the latter coming from independent films, since he was effectively boycotted by the major studios. He was removed from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which he largely made with his acting ability, losing over $20 million per subsequent film made. Two years later, Depp was still being described as a “wife beater” in the more salacious sections of the press, leading to his removal from acting projects and resultant financial losses. In 2022, Depp was awarded damages for several of Heard’s claims, which the court deemed defamatory and malicious. The award of $10 million was far less than his actual losses – although his reputation has now partly recovered.
Ad these cases show, the court of public opinion passes its own judgements, ahead of and unconstrained by the official law courts. Its judgements do not go along with those of the official courts and do not involve any of the checks or procedures. Someone can suffer massive reputational and financial losses from such public reactions, regardless of the legal standing of accusations against them. This is not just a random impact: the court of the public is itself conducted by someone.
Nobody is too big to be affected by cancel culture. Actors, businesspeople, politicians, and writers are all affected. Even someone as powerful as Donald Trump has been permanently banned from Twitter. Status and money did not protect him. The action taken against him is simple. The blow to his reputation is powerful. At the same time, nobody is too insignificant to potentially be targeted. For those with few means to respond, an outcry over an off-message remark can easily lead to job loss, jail, and exile from social media. This has a chilling effect on political culture, and is moving ever closer to destroying the public arena of discussion. People now face sanctions of various kinds for challenging the official results of elections, for opposing COVID-19 lockdowns or raising the issue of antivirals, for posting material from Russian news sources, for supporting protests which later turn rowdy, for advocating civil disobedience, for not being sufficiently outraged about the latest news event, for not taking part in a cancel campaign, for liking the wrong TV show, for telling a sick joke. All too often, people can be criminalized under vaguely worded laws if someone takes offense at their comments. But even when a comment is legally protected, cancel campaigns can cost someone their jobs, their friends, their social media accounts, their reputations. On the most controversial issues (such as abortion, gun control, transgender issues, Israel-Palestine), where both sides engage in cancel campaigns, the only way to stay safe is to stay silent. And even if someone avoids making controversial statements entirely, they can be targeted by malicious adversaries with false accusations. The attacker can similarly be almost anyone, from state security services to business rivals to people with a grudge.
There is terrible scope for things to get worse. The Chinese social credit model, which is being imported already into Italy, formalizes cancel culture as a method of state control. And if there have not yet been rigged elections or false flag operations protected from exposure behind the veil of cancel culture, it creates an opportunity-structure which ensures that sooner or later, there will be. Someone who is happy enough to see Trump supporters cancelled and witch-hunted will be less happy if the same methods are used later against Black Lives Matter or Antifa, and vice-versa.
Western societies with long traditions of free speech have allowed the slow creep of cancel culture for a long time. Recently, however, a backlash against it is developing. In June 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, a list of 153 public figures issued a statement openly warning of “illiberal forces” whose “censorship” threatens free and open discussion of public issues. Signatories include Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, and Malcolm Gladwell. “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation”, the letter says. “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” This is, indeed, the Enlightenment way.
On the right, conservatives denounce cancel culture as a political cudgel used by liberals when confronted with any opposition. “This is the Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of. I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have,” said Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley. Hawley lost a book contract with Simon and Schuster, soon after backing lawsuits against Biden’s election victory. However, liberal watchdogs also accuse conservatives of using cancel culture. Parker Molloy of Media Matters for America suggests that conservatives ignore cancel culture unless they are the targets. Hawley, for example, actively supported a campaign to persuade credit card companies to cancel the website Pornhub.
In the world of business, it is quite possible for unscrupulous actors to cause massive losses to a competitor using cancel culture methods, often without being detected. Take for example the case of Eli Lilly, the company that first started commercial production of insulin. An unknown user created a realistic-looking fake account named @EliLillyandCo, bought a special blue tick (verified account) from Twitter for $8, and posted a single tweet that “insulin is free now”. “The fake message hit more than 1,500 retweets and 11,000 likes in just a few hours,” FiercePharma writes. The tweet became so popular that Eli Lilly’s official Twitter account was forced to post a response. “We apologize to those who have been served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account. Our official Twitter account is @LillyPad,” the company wrote. Nevertheless, the company’s shares fell more than 5% on Friday, November 11, Proactive Investors wrote. Shares of other insulin makers, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi, fell nearly 4%. As of Monday, November 14, Eli Lilly stock is still worth less than it was the previous week. It is estimated that the company lost $15 billion from the incident. Since Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, the process of issuing blue ticks has been loosened. It is now much easier for users to create fake accounts with blue ticks, without the Twitter administration carrying out authenticity checks. Other decisions by Musk led a number of advertisers, including Pfizer, to shut down advertising on the platform, according to Business Insider.
Businesses are effectively subject to the demands of cancel culture. For instance, cancel culture forced Victoria’s Secret to discontinue its famous shows that had been out for decades, as well as a total rebranding. The reason was the company’s policy, which imposed stringent requirements for models, one of which was the critically low weight of girls.There was no inclusivity among Victoria’s Secret Angels, and company executives said they would never accept a transgender or plus-size model.It was after this statement that many people expressed outrage and began to boycott the company. As a result, the famous lingerie brand had no choice but to go along with the angry crowd and change its own policy, which resulted in financial losses, not to mention reputational ones. The world of the absurd dictates its own rules.
In short, cancel culture is not a question of left versus right, progress versus reaction, the center versus the extremes, or any other binary. Cancel culture is a common tool which is used by all sides, and in which all sides are vulnerable to being manipulated into using it disproportionately or without justification. As well as causing massive reputational and financial losses, and chilling public speech, cancel culture has the damaging effect of intensifying polarization and hatred. All too often, cancel campaigns inspire some users to spill out hate, death threats, sadistic fantasies and suchlike on the target or their supporters. This tends, in turn, to make their own group seem increasingly threatening and abusive to those on the other side. The combination of cancel culture with a polarized political culture creates a situation where everyone’s reputation is continually at risk, and where public dialogue is stymied before it can even begin.