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Cancel Culture in Academia

My doctoral research examined how social media and "Cancel Culture" influenced the work and personal lives of more than 100 academics in the United States.


ABOUT THE STUDY


The popularity of social media has led to an expansion and normalization of surveillance in our culture. As people make themselves visible through status updates, photos, and videos, they are watched by others as a means of socialization, professional engagement, and entertainment. This exposure is commonly invited and enjoyed; however, since social media collapse audiences and social contexts, it is difficult to know who may view one’s social media activities and how they will be judged.


The host of NPR’s "Hidden Brain" podcast, Shankar Vedantam, described this all-too-common problem in simple terms: "On social media, we're encouraged to be quick, clever, edgy. The funny videos and amusing banter we engage in seem low stakes, but they are not. A larger world is watching. It's usually silent, but every now and then something we say or do can ignite a firestorm; and then nothing you say can undo the damage." The potential for damage is felt across social and professional strata, but perhaps nowhere is it more salient—and more visible—than in higher education, where incidents of so-called "Cancel Culture" are increasingly common. These incidents follow a familiar pattern: a professor posts an opinion on social media that upsets students, colleagues, or members of the public who disagree. Others then amplify the post with the intent to harass, defund, fire, or "cancel" the offending professor. "Cancel Culture in Academia" is the first psychological study to investigate how social media surveillance influences the ways that academics present themselves and their ideas, not only online but in the classroom and among colleagues. With participation by over 100 scholars from across the United States, it the largest qualitative study of academics' experiences with cancel culture and networked harassment on social media. This study features an extensive narrative presentation of results which details the experiences of professors and other career academics as they navigate cancel culture on their campuses and in the academy. Their candid descriptions and reflections raise important questions about free speech and open inquiry in the digital age. In addition, this research advances scientific understanding of social media surveillance as a normailizing force in the academy and the borader culture. Results may be applied to policy in education and other professional settings. Key findings of this study include:

  • A majority of participants agreed that faculty speech is being monitored on social media

  • Professors' use of social media is profoundly influenced by the rise of Cancel Culture, including withdrawal from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and use of protective self-censorship

  • Scholars report changing or eliminating classroom lessons over concerns that students will record and post classroom speech with the intent to "cancel"

  • Scholars report avoiding research subjects of interest over concerns of being ostracized by academic peers

  • Participants identify left-wing sociopolitical ideologies as the dominant, "enforced orthodoxy" in academia which drives cancel culture



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