Social mobs love “cancelling” people. What drives some to pile on, and what can organizations do to effectively manage a crisis if and when one arises? Risk expert Michael Toebe provides a game plan.
Social media is a powerful voice in society, whether led by media, people of high influence in different professions or in the court of public opinion. All can be provoked emotionally when it comes to other people’s transgressions or perceived violations of social expectations.
There is a term for the judgment and punishment that regularly develops from this aggressive, punitive, echo chamber: social mobbing.
Why is social mobbing so attractive?
An excellent article detailing this social psychology and behavior was published recently in Psychology Today. “5 Reasons Why People Love Cancel Culture – Research Reveals Why Social Media Mobs Enjoy Cancelling People,” written by Rob Henderson, reveals important, valuable research findings.
Henderson, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and did his undergraduate work at Yale University (B.S., Psychology) upon leaving the service.
The catalyst for his article on the cancel culture was rooted in meaningful observation and the curiosity it stimulated.
“Four days after being honorably discharged from the military, I matriculated to Yale as an undergraduate. Within two months, I observed as students targeted a lecturer because she defended freedom of expression. They successfully pushed her out of her position as a faculty member,” Henderson said. That type of cultural aggression repeated itself in his next surroundings.
“Four months after matriculating to Cambridge as a graduate student, I observed students target a professor. They successfully revoked his invitation to join Cambridge as a guest research fellow. This has been my introduction to higher education in the U.S. and the U.K.,” he said.
The research findings are valuable to organizational leaders because they clearly detail the psychological drivers (motivation) that make social mobbing attractive for those who participate.
To know is to understand, and with that understanding can come improved risk management and, when necessary, higher-quality problem solving through adversity or crisis with the media, social media and court of public opinion.
Research has found that participating in cancel culture can and does increase a person’s social status, creating new opportunities to move up that figurative ladder by taking others down, which can prove a strong psychological motivation for some people. Does it prove effective?
“Research has indeed shown that expressing moral outrage can make others trust you more. It can serve as a signal of trustworthiness,” Henderson said. “The logic is that if I see you target someone for alleged misconduct, then I will infer that you are a good person.”
There are risks in this behavior though, he said.
“Still, other research shows that this can backfire,” Henderson said. “If I learn you are a hypocrite – for example, that you target others for behavior you yourself engage in – then I will subsequently be less likely to trust you.”
Cancel culture can prove damaging to the social status of the enemies of a group or a person and this is empowering to those doing the “canceling” because of the benefits that can, at times, be derived. Henderson shares how that can work in theory and practice.
He wrote that “one person losing social rank is the same as (the aggressor) gaining it. The research shows people engage in moral grandstanding to enhance their social rank. If you’re a ‘six’ on the social-status ladder, working up to a ‘nine’ is hard. But scheming to bring a ‘nine’ down to a ‘three’ is easier and more thrilling.”
That reward can be enticing to emotionally triggered people or those flooded in emotion. “If you see someone do something wrong and you feel a sense of righteous indignation, that might be a good time to think carefully about how to proceed, especially if others have already scolded the individual,” Henderson said.
“Pointing out wrongdoing can be good for society,” he said. “But most of us believe in proportional punishment. If I share or post something that is hurtful, it might be reasonable for you to point it out. But when 1,000 people ‘like’ your admonishment, and 1,000 more pile on with more vicious comments, then perhaps we’ve lost that sense of proportionality in the digital age.”
It seems wise for protection for the benefit of our safety and well-being to consider our decisions and actions, because how we are perceived – our reputation – is not always in alignment with how the world can and will judge us. It is critical to consider the lay of the land, the culture, as organizations and individuals.
As to why a segment of society has come to believe their role is as legitimate, ultimate judge of people’s well-being and arbiter of who is to be protected and who isn’t… it’s an interesting tribal question for a developed nation.
“This is a big question. One with several plausible answers. One answer is that all of us, to some extent, enjoy seeing our foes suffer. In the age of social media, some individuals have managed to use it as a tool to inflict pain on their adversaries,” Henderson said. “You may have observed that social mobs choose their targets not based on whether they have done something wrong, but based on the faction to which they belong.”
Again, back to impressions, judgments and reputation. This is valuable insight to have to conduct the wisest, strongest, risk management.
What targets of cancel culture might not always consider or remember is the connective value that social media mobbing provides. It’s a sense of belonging, maybe sharing similarities to that of a gang.
Is there a healthy replacement for the behavior of mobbing, that dark satisfaction of aggression and schadenfreude?
“There are other ways to strengthen social bonds and unite around a common purpose. Helping others is deeply rewarding and need not come at the cost of singling out a perpetrator,” Henderson said. “Affirming the values of one’s group by helping them succeed can be just as rewarding, if not more so, as denigrating the behavior of others.”
Does this create a sense of emotionally rewarding justice in mobs? Does it restore hope or some balance to life, soothe some pain or discontent?
“It’s possible that cancel culture has flourished because it facilitates symbolic victories. Many problems in society run far deeper than any one person, but making an example of someone can make social mobs feel as if they are making a difference in the world,” he said.
That is something for individuals or organizations to remember and plan to avoid: being in a position because of their beliefs, attitudes, impulses and behavior, where they can be judged and mobbed. Social media also provides easy thinking for mobs.
“We also like simple stories,” Henderson said. “When deep problems get solved, they are often told in the form of data and statistics. Boring. When a person gets canceled, it arouses a sense of primitive triumph. Exciting.”
What hope is there for psychology as a field to learn of better solutions to help society find a remedy for this type of impulse and behavior?
“Psychology has done a good job revealing how people can derive pleasure from unsavory acts,” Henderson said. “Sharing such results can perhaps curb destructive patterns. Lack of awareness about our evolved impulses makes us more likely to enact them.”
What Henderson has learned and communicated in his work is of critical importance for executives and boards of directors to understand. The findings are knowledge that can aid in decision analysis and decision-making in regards to governance, compliance, communications and, when relevant, crisis communications.
Preventative measures can mitigate the likelihood of social media mobbing and allow organizations to navigate through it with less risk and damages.
What preventive measures will prove successful?
Consider the impact of decision-making and organizational actions. Do they align with cultural expectations of ethics and morality? Do they take into account how you want to be viewed for your interactions with your people, market and society? Do they reveal your best self while in pursuit of objectives?
Don’t answer these questions alone. Invite feedback and encourage dissenting views. Create psychological safety to facilitate this critical information gathering. Seek what you might be missing. This approach can prove highly protective and act as improved risk management, governance and thus, quality “insurance” against social media attacks and the accompanying hunger for mobbing for a common purpose and engaging in cancel culture.
Regularly invest time in gaining a strong understanding of and practicing emotional intelligence principles. While this may seem abstract, impractical and of little value, on the contrary, it can prove invaluable as a reputation builder and next-level quality of risk management. Not surprisingly, the benefits will materialize within the organization as much as outside of it, creating increased benefit of the doubt in both places.
Set in place an early-response system to conflict that could end up in the media and social media or already has done so. Engage, and do so with poise, humility, sincerity and compassion. You will see a positive return on this decision-making.
Consistently take temperature checks within the organization and outside of it with your market and society online. Think “macro” as well as “micro” when doing this, stepping outside your comfort zone into uncertainty, querying people whose response you might be uneasy about receiving.
Temperature checks, in this context, allude to people’s emotions, beliefs and attitudes about you, and the intensity attached, based on the perception resulting from leadership and organizational mindset and actions. This is another risk management process and acts as insurance.
Strongly consider diversity within your inner circle – diversity of demographics as well as diversity of experiences, viewpoints and beliefs. While seeking a strong team, create room for healthy, protective conflict to best protect organizational and individual well-being.
What about response practices to cancel culture in progress?
Don’t go dark. This is a common practice. Ignoring the crisis, at least with your response to media, will prove costly; you forfeit control of the narrative – not always an accurate one, and one in which acceleration of negativity will be rapid. Many individuals and organizations have been frozen in analysis paralysis or disgust, gone dark and suffered far worse than they imagined.
Don’t respond robotically. This too, is common. Having a company spokesperson or attorney speak briefly and in a wooden manner, devoid of social awareness, self-awareness, empathy and sincerity is akin to impaling your reputation on top of the adversity or crisis you are currently enduring. When you communicate, choose someone who is respected for their character and strength of humanity.
Don’t respond and run. Crisis is not a one-response situation, yet that is what organizational leaders believe is safest. Communicate briefly and robotically, then disappear. This intensifies negative emotions, assumptions, beliefs, attitudes, aggression and punitive calls to action. It’s predictable and earned pain if leaders choose this reckless strategy.
Humbly, patiently seek understanding. When people and groups feel understood, empathized with and recognize a sense of sincere remorse and commitment to improve a relationship, negativity and aggression often recede.
Be careful to avoid your own defensiveness or annoyance. Often in cancel culture, individuals and organizations can become emotionally triggered by negative feedback and attacks and respond with poor self-control, thereby compounding damages.
This requires suppression of ego and our own negative emotions, yet the benefits of that stress management and self-control prove protective and corrective.
Be willing to take sustained action to problem-solve to market and cultural expectations (and beyond). Words and all actions speak to and echo our beliefs, intentions and commitment. They build or deconstruct reputation. The good news is, we have a choice for building trust, restoring it, rebuilding it and benefiting, or choosing willingly to forfeit it.
Prompt, committed action to thorough, compassionate problem-solving can prevent or defuse cancel culture.
Cancel culture can largely be prevented, yet when it does emerge, and even when it hits high velocity, it can be more skillfully, successfully assessed, navigated, mitigated and problem-solved.