When Britney Spears’s 13-year conservatorship ended in November last year, a resounding triumphant cheer went up across the globe. This was heard most loudly on social media—under the label of #FreeBritney on nearly every platform from TikTok to Reddit—where millions of fans chimed in with celebratory posts about the pop star’s new-found freedom. It seemed like a win not only for Spears herself, but for every fan who had passionately advocated for the singer online. The case may have ultimately been settled by the Los Angeles Superior Court judge who ended the conservatorship, but the truth was clear: the real court of influence was that of public opinion.
#FreeBritney stands as one of the clearest displays of the power social media movements hold today. The campaign gained such momentum that even the biggest celebrities weighed in. “You never deserved what happened, Thank God 4 today. You’re a superstar and a super-human being,” wrote Lady Gaga on Instagram on the day the end of the conservatorship was announced, while Donatella Versace showed support with: “Freedom is a human right. My heart is smiling for you, Britney. Congratulations on your regained and deserved emancipation. I love you, your fierce fans love you and the world NEEDS your brilliance. Happy Britneypendence day! #FreeBritney”.
What propelled the movement forward was, in part, an incredible swell of support for Spears, but equally, a powerful surge of hatred for anyone who seemed not to rally behind the cause. The list of people to despise was boundless—it spanned from fellow pop star Christina Aguilera when she declined to comment on the saga in a backstage interview, to Jamie and Jamie Lynn Spears, members of Britney’s family that the public holds accountable for the oppressive nature her conservatorship took on. When fans collectively rallied against Aguilera online, it didn’t matter that the singer had spoken out multiple times against Spears’s conservatorship on Twitter. In June, Aguilera had written in a lengthy thread: “These past few days I’ve been thinking about Britney and everything she is going through. It is unacceptable that any woman, or human, wanting to be in control of their own destiny might not be allowed to live life as they wish.”
The vigour with which Aguilera was still slammed online was startling—and yet not at all surprising. Online movements have historically been rooted in fire and feelings, and seldom pure, objective fact. This is not to say that the Free Britney movement didn’t have immense merit—but it is the collateral damage that is interesting to examine.
Cancel culture has, at this point, morphed into a buzzword that holds little meaning. At its core, the term refers to an act of ostracism, most visibly seen on social media, and most commonly executed through huge volumes of hate speech intended to drive someone off the platforms they are occupying.
South Korean actor Kim Seon Ho’s recent brush with cancel culture exemplifies how quickly it can be enacted. As the star of hit Korean drama Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, Kim was enjoying success and time in the limelight until accusations from an anonymous ex-girlfriend went viral, alleging that he had threatened her into having an abortion during their relationship. Amidst a barrage of online hate, his social media following plummeted in the thousands, he was pulled from a variety show he was set to appear in and dropped from two upcoming films and several ad deals. His career was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Then, new information surfaced. Dispatch, a South-Korean tabloid, turned over evidence that the accusations against Kim from his ex-girlfriend—whose identity was revealed to be former weather forecaster Choi Young Ah—were not true. Just like that, Kim’s luck turned again. Social media was back on his side, his brand deals were reinstated, and he came out of the tumultuous few weeks with over half a million more followers on Instagram.
“The case may have ultimately been settled by the Los Angeles Superior Court Judge who ended the conservatorship, but the truth was clear: the real court of influence was that of public opinion.”
Lest the absurdism of the incident is lost in the fact that justice was seemingly restored, consider another prominent actor who was famously stripped of his reputation due to allegations of physical abuse by ex-wife Amber Heard—allegations that have since gone unsubstantiated. While the matter is still being investigated in court (at the time of writing, Johnny Depp has just been granted access by a court to Heard’s phone records), Depp’s career and public image have taken irreversible hits since the incident first entered public consciousness in 2016. If Dispatch had not undertaken its own investigation into the allegations against Kim last year, would the South Korean actor’s case have turned out similarly?
These are complicated incidents to unpack, primarily because they cross lines with crucial, nuanced movements like #MeToo. But it is the swiftness and single-mindedness with which the public turns that is of real intrigue. Smaller microcosms of the same phenomenon reflect an identical pattern, even if they carry far less stakes. Tiktok creator Emily Mariko’s page broke through amongst the countless lifestyle vloggers on social media when her simple microwave recipe of salmon, reheated rice, kimchi and seaweed took the platform by storm. As the video gained popularity, Mariko attained TikTok verification and millions of followers overnight, with fans instantly putting her on a pedestal for her covetable lifestyle. Her followers made countless videos about her—one fan wrote a song entitled ‘I think it’s funny that I’m living in the same world as Emily Mariko’, conveying just how aspirational Mariko’s lifestyle was—and for at least a few weeks, she was a public hero.
Then, her followers turned against her. As Mariko’s brand of quiet luxury (she films her videos in an immaculate but minimalist kitchen) started to grate on her fans’ nerves, she began receiving hateful comments on the same videos that had previously been extolled. “Emily, have you ever cried yourself to sleep?” one of her comments read. Just weeks after she was propelled to TikTok fame, Mariko’s comments were flooded with negativity and hate speech, seemingly for no explicable reason other than she got too popular, and netizens got annoyed.
The impact of online hate speech is not one that should be underestimated, especially at the force and volume it is usually seen today. If you make a mistake on a public platform—and more importantly, if you are called out on one—you can be sure that the barrage of comments and messages you will receive will bury you under their weight. There is no due process in the court of public opinion and there seems to hardly be any space for apology and forgiveness. In today’s lightning-speed, divisive social media climate, Vogue asks lawyer-turned-celebrity manager Ashley Villa: where does forgiveness sit in cancel culture?
As the founder and CEO of the world’s first female-focused and female-run influencer management company, Villa manages numerous high-profile online personalities, from Michelle Phan to Arden Cho. Hence, she is well-acquainted with the nuances of navigating today’s trigger-happy social media landscape. Her main advice? “If a mistake has been made, own up to it.”
What is your understanding of cancel culture?
To me, cancel culture means that someone makes a mistake that results in social ostracism. It may be warranted sometimes, but I think that cancel culture today is extremely isolating and a little too harsh.
When do you think cancel culture is warranted and when does it become a problem?
Not allowing someone to give their opinion or side of things is quite disconcerting. If someone’s truly awoken to the truth, if they’ve changed, learned and grown, still not allowing them to make an apology seems counterproductive. When cancel culture doesn’t allow someone to evolve, and just pushes them away and says, “you’re done”, then that’s an issue. On the flipside, if a public figure who has made a mistake continues to make excuses, doesn’t choose to learn, doesn’t make an apology, then I can’t say that cancel culture wouldn’t deliver the correct consequence.
Given that so many of your clients have huge followings on social media, how have you navigated this subject with them especially during the pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I had an honest conversation with most of my clients. How do we address our present reality? What do we do? Do we stop posting luxury products online? Ultimately many of my clients asked their subscribers what they wanted to see. They knew that people were losing their jobs, people were dying. But interestingly, most of their audiences said, “please don’t stop posting, we still want to see these nice things. We don’t want things to be dark all the time—we’re here because we want to be lifted up.” So my clients mostly kept to their regular programming, but it was important that they were aware and for them to show that awareness. I represent a rock star roster of clients—they’re good people. So they’ve always been considerate of their audience, but I think they are hyper aware now.
What would your advice be if one of your clients were to get cancelled?
If one of my clients did make a mistake, I would recommend that they first figure out what exactly that mistake was. Reflect, do some internal thinking, speak to people around you and then apologise. My main advice to my clients is: if a mistake has been made, own up to it. Don’t continue making weird excuses and posting things that clearly show that you haven’t done the learning. Make a thoughtful, sincere, public apology.
What does a good public apology look like?
First and foremost a good apology needs to be clear. State the facts, say how they actually did happen. Don’t change things or cover things up. Explain what you felt at the time, share what you’ve now learned and say sorry.
Why do you think cancel culture has become such a quick and powerful force over the past few years?
It has become easy on social media for certain voices to grow stronger. These are people who might not speak out in real life, but when you’re behind a computer, it’s easier to just make statements, even statements that might not have any backing. Only when someone comes for you, do you then have to substantiate your claims and show your receipts. So it almost becomes a mob mentality, where there’s one leader who is extremely vocal, and then this person gains followers. It becomes the responsibility of the viewer to do their own research.
As a viewer, how can we better navigate the mechanisms of online cancel culture?
It’s important to be able to differentiate evidence from opinion. It becomes very easy to change ideas when the masses haven’t done their own research. To me, that’s a huge issue with social media today. You can’t just take an infographic that you saw on the Internet and count it as truth because you like the source who posted it. I think how viewers can start is by asking questions when they see a piece of content or a narrative online. Is that evidence or is it just an opinion? That’s how you become an active member of social media instead of a passive consumer.
Is there space for forgiveness in cancel culture?
It starts with a good apology. When a public figure who has made a mistake owns up to it and shows genuine growth, they should be allowed to evolve. Isn’t learning and seeing the light—metamorphosis—the whole point of online social discourse? There are some fundamental issues like racism, sexism and homophobia that I don’t think can be compromised on. But if a public figure has made ignorant comments when they were younger, and if they show that they are truly sorry and that they’ve done the work to learn from their mistakes, I think giving them a chance to grow is the gracious thing to do.
Illustrations: Beverley Ng