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#BoycottH&M: The problem with ‘cancelling culture’ and social media performance

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‘Cancelling culture’ could render online activism obsolete, only implementing short-term change which fails to tackle issues in the long run

Last week, fashion retailer H&M faced accusations of racism after an image surfaced, depicting a black child-model wearing a hoodie bearing the slogan, ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’. As the image went viral it received a mixed response from social media users with some immediately brandishing the company as racist.

H&M hoodie
H&M removed the hoodie from it’s website and issued an apology, following widespread anger on social media

After artists such as The Weeknd and later, G-Eazy tweeted their disappointment with H&M, both announcing their decision to cut ties with the brand, there has been an ongoing debate on social media. Whilst some deemed the hoodie ‘culturally insensitive’, they felt the company had no malicious intent, others declared they were not offended at all. This included the child’s mother, Terry Mango, who took to social media to tell people to ‘get over it’ in posts which have now been deleted. Interestingly, during the social media debate, parental consent was conveniently ignored by most users who instantly dismissed the company and even called for a boycott. In addition to this, mainstream media outlets picked up on this and instigated a provocative narrative, choosing to report on the ‘uproar’ and ‘outrage’ of users on social media platforms but failed to provide explanations or the historical context which led to wide scale backlash in the first place.  

 

The hoodie has divided opinion and despite H&Ms apology, failed to de-escalate the mood which developed online over the weekend and throughout the week. This poses the question, was there a correct response? The honest answer is no. Social media and in particular social media activism has very little scope for alternative or dissenting viewpoints. This has resulted in users with problematic opinions to be demonized, especially as ‘cancelling’ and ‘dragging’ culture has become more prominent, particularly within subgroups such as ‘(fake) Woke Twitter’ or ‘Social Justice Warrior’ (SJW) Twitter. A problem arises however, when people share opinions which offend these groups gain attention, as they generally share a tendency to label them – or in H&Ms case, their brand – ‘cancelled’.

Admittedly, the impact of ‘cancellation culture’ for want of a better term, is relatively minimal. It is in fact, so obscure that the interest of trending topics rises and falls in a matter of days, hours even in some cases. The hashtag fizzles out, the memes become stale and overused and lastly, anger subsides, well, until another company’s PR campaign misses the point, which is bound to happen. Both the mainstream media and social media are over saturated with information, concepts of virality and ‘meme culture’ have inundated the web and increased demand for short, succinct content made to be liked and shared. But as quickly as phrases, images and videos gain popularity, they also tend to lose their notoriety just as quickly, as pop culture tends to peruse new narratives to divert our attention away from other issues.

“Case in point, Cardi B isn’t cancelled after old tweets resurfaced last year, leading to accusations of colourism and transphobia. On the other hand, Azealia Banks is cancelled, following a string of tweets back in 2016 directed at Zayn Malik, that warranted her fair game to widespread backlash and the suspension of her Twitter account.”

We see then, how this perpetuates a form of short-term amnesia when it comes to online activism, a consequence of our highly mediatised culture. The H&M scandal will be forgotten and the calls for a boycott will dissipate, the topic itself will be relegated to the viral (or ‘cancelled’) archives of the month.  The concept of ‘cancellation’ has entered everyday vocabulary as a throwaway phrase as opposed to a powerful political statement. As the list of ‘Twitter’ blacklisted companies, celebrities and the general populace continues to grow, we have also witnessed the reconfiguring of the notion of ‘cancelling’ and what it stands for – if it ever stood for anything. The political ramifications remain coincidental at best, now, the term has lost all meaning and has become a catch-all phrase, particularly as people use the term to label things or people, they dislike or disagree with. Case in point, Cardi B isn’t cancelled after old tweets resurfaced last year, leading to accusations of colourism and transphobia. On the other hand, Azealia Banks is cancelled, following a string of tweets back in 2016 directed at Zayn Malik, that warranted her fair game to widespread backlash and her Twitter account suspended.

The extremities appear when online outrage is misdirected, which usually happens when online posts are misconstrued. This has happened to many celebrities, internet personalities and politicians with drastic consequences, resulting in either a loss of sponsorship and/or their career in jeopardy. It becomes clear how a narrative can be promulgated by a select few and gains enough traction because of volatile social media trends, a users popularity or simply because it seems like the right thing to do. Here enters social media performance whereby users exhibit (faux) concern over trending issues and even draft a tweet, reuse the hashtag and retweet other users with similar concerns.

 

However, this all takes place within the confines of a designated application, any substantial change in the real world is rarely implemented. Many terms have been used to describe this phenomena including ‘clicktivism’ and the more pejorative term, ‘slacktivism’ which has become the extent of hashtag activism at present. This is not to minimise or criticise the resourcefulness of social media, it would be disingenous to downplay the role social media plays in providing a voice for minorities and improving lives within communities for the better. In fact, social media has offered the resources for a multitude of groups to come together with the objective to inform and politicise young people.

Nonetheless, the problem lies within the ‘copycat’ anger hashtag activism perpetuates. As the concept of wokeness has been popularised and even commodified, nearly everyone is trying their hand at constructing an image which exudes a mixture of social awareness, anti-establishment discourse and trendy buzzwords. The downside to ‘hashtag’ activism is a lack of factual information being circulated, instead a quote tweet of a clickbait headline of an article on Twitter  is more likely to gain attention rather than the content of the article itself . What we are left with then, are misinformed ‘activists’ who fail to scrutinise events – H&M being a prime example – or conduct their own research. Many tend to mindlessly accept what the ‘majority’ are saying, regardless of its context, veracity or authenticity.

Consequently, the inclination to ‘cancel’ in response to any wrongdoing without verificaton of all facts could render online activism obsolete. The intentions of H&M remain highly contended but regardless of opinion, the erratic nature of ‘cancelling’ could lead to severe implications in the long run and without a doubt, will result in more harm than good.

 

Photo courtesy of TheAdviseTVShow via google images.

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