Learn more about “cancel culture” and its effects.
By Lakambini Bautista
In today’s digital age, and especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when people spent a lot of time online, a phenomenon emerged. It’s called cancel culture (or callout culture)—the popular practice of withdrawing support for individuals or companies after they have done or said something deemed objectionable or offensive.
Cancel culture involves calling out people, groups, companies, or brands; boycotting individuals’ or groups’ service or product endorsements; or trying to take away people’s or entities’ public platforms and power. It’s more rampant online especially on social media, but it also happens in person. Companies, brands, or people who are ostracized are referred to as “cancelled”—meaning nulled, ended, voided—like a service subscription.
CANCEL CULTURE, PART OF FILIPINO CULTURE? Cancelling people, groups, or other entities is a prevalent practice in the Philippines, as confirmed by a study conducted by independent Southeast Asian research company Milieu Insight. In a research done last July 2022 among 1,000 Filipino respondents aged 16 to 40, it was learned that one in five Filipinos has participated in a cancel movement. The top reasons for cancelling were that they “did not agree with the actions or opinions of the person or group” (66 percent), or that “the person or group is/was involved in a controversy” (54 percent).
A similar study was also conducted in other Southeast Asian countries—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The usual issue that led to the respondents’ withdrawal of support tended to be racism (54 percent), sexual assault (50 percent), and physical violence (48 percent).
In the Philippines, cultural issues such as cultural appropriation (50 percent vs 40 percent overall) are among the reasons people, brands, or groups get cancelled. This is true in the case of comedian host and Binibining Pilipinas 2022 runner-up Herlene Nicole “Hipon Girl” Budol, who drew flak for the statement-making afro hair she wore in a photoshoot. The Man of the World pageant this year was also called out for using the bahag, the male Igorot loincloth, in its swimwear competition.
According to Britannica.com, “Cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.”
The other notable reason is political stance (48 percent)—as in the case of actress, TV host and Shopee endorser Toni Gonzaga, who was ostracized for being an ardent supporter of President Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos, Jr. (BBM), who happens to be her and her husband’s wedding godfather. Similarly, actress Angel Locsin was also bashed for her anti-BBM posts on social media and for supporting former Vice President Leni Robredo when the latter ran for the presidency.
Many Filipinos believe that cancelling is a useful tool to demand responsibility from public figures, as can be gleaned from the Milieu Insight study. Those surveyed describe cancel culture to be cruel (45 percent) and aggressive (35 percent), yet those who have been part of a cancel movement tend to view it as normal (30 percent), helpful (22 percent), and progressive (16 percent). Majority even agree that cancel movements are a fair punishment (76 percent) for wrongdoers to be held responsible, and 78 percent see them as effective in doing so.
CANCELLED FOR A REASON A key element in cancel culture is public humiliation or public shaming, something that our ancestors have done in various chapters of human history. Back in the day, public shaming was done as a form of punishment to an offender or prisoner. It was considered a positive social practice and a great equalizer. From in-person practice, public shaming has transcended over the last couple of decades to the online world. Highly susceptible to the era of cancel culture are celebrities and powerful individuals. Remember how the #MeToo movement led to the conviction of former film producer Harvey Weinstein as a sex offender? Toni Gonzaga’s introduction of then-senatorial candidate Rodante Marcoleta in a proclamation rally earlier this year—seen by many as an endorsement of the latter’s candidacy—provoked online outrage against the actress and host. It could be recalled that Marcoleta played a key role in the 17th Congress’ non-renewal of erstwhile broadcast giant ABS-CBN’s franchise. The incident eventually led to Gonzaga’s decision to resign from her two-decade tenure in ABS-CBN’s “Pinoy Big Brother.”
Karla Estrada was likewise criticized when she decided to run as a representative under Tingog partylist, a staunch advocate of development particularly in the Eastern Visayas region. Just like Marcoleta, Tingog rejected the renewal of the franchise of ABSCBN—Estrada and her son Daniel Padilla’s home network. Not long after Estrada’s congressional bid was formalized, the hashtag #WithdrawKarlaEstrada trended on Twitter, largely through the efforts of KathNiel (Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla) fans. A subgroup of the tandem’s fans went so far as threatening to withdraw support for the loveteam if they openly campaigned for Tingog.
Meanwhile, Estrada took a break from her hosting duties in ABS-CBN’s early morning program “Magandang Buhay” when she filed her certificate of candidacy and never returned to the show.
From recent experience, not all cancellation efforts have succeeded, or taken off at all. Particularly, some efforts to cancel certain individuals and establishments were met with even bigger counter-cancel moves.
In the Estrada case, for example, another subgroup of KathNiel supporters pointed out that Estrada’s candidacy was beyond the popular tandem’s control, and thus the tandem did not deserve to be cancelled. As this subgroup professed their continued support for KathNiel (with some saying that they would still stand behind KathNiel even if they openly supported Estrada), the hashtags #YakapParaSaKathNiel and #YakapKathNiel trended on Twitter. Their stand was as clear as it was logical: their stand on Estrada’s candidacy was independent of their long-standing support for Padilla and Bernardo, and they could still refuse to support Estrada even as they remained loyal KathNiel fans.
Another major case of resisting or countering cancellation is that of Quezon City-based restaurant Urban Chick. One of its owners reportedly refused an order of fried chicken meals for 600 persons upon realizing that the order was for attendees to a gathering of BBM supporters. As news about this Php 60,000 decision broke, the restaurant received bad reviews and became a target of online attacks, apparently from BBM supporters. In response, Leni-Kiko supporters called on all their allies or Kakampinks to actively counter the cancellation efforts by patronizing Urban Chick. The resto instantly earned a spot in the list of business establishments deemed worthy of Kakampink support and patronage.
CANCEL CULTURE AND RIGHT TO FREE EXPRESSION
Nowadays, you can get cancelled for the slightest action that you do online. Say, if you posted or tweeted a personal opinion opposed to the position of a tight-knit group, or against a particular personality or government official, you run the risk of being cancelled. Can anyone still speak out anymore without fear of being subjected to online attacks and trolling? Is cancel culture making Filipinos scared to talk about what they truly believe in because they do not want to get into trouble?
The Philippines’ ranking in the World Press Freedom Index dropped nine places this year compared to last year—from 138th to 147th, among 180 countries. This is the fifth time that the country dipped in the ranking by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In 2018, the country was at 133rd, 134th in 2019, then 136th in 2020, and 138rd in 2021. For a country claiming to be on the road to progress, this is clearly a backward move.
Cancel culture encroaches on our freedom of speech, whether it’s intentional or not. Today, many Filipinos would rather keep their progressive, woke comments and statements to themselves for fear of getting cancelled or be at the receiving end of strong online backlash. The Milieu Insight study showed that the majority of Filipinos act cautiously both online (92 percent) and offline (91 percent) because they are worried about being cancelled in lieu of their political beliefs and the 2022 presidential elections.
IMPACT OF A TOXIC CULTURE
Cancel culture doesn’t only affect the canceled individual, group, brand or company, but even the canceller and the onlookers or bystanders.
Studies have shown that it can take a toll on people’s mental health. Being cancelled could lead to anxiety, depression, trauma, and suicidal thoughts and behavior. It could also lead to loss of livelihood as in the case of the merchants affected by the Shopee Philippines brouhaha brought about by its choice of Toni Gonzaga—a zealous supporter of BBM—as brand ambassador. A good number of Shopee patrons openly criticized such move, and called on others to cancel the online shopping platform, just as they had cancelled Gonzaga previously. Sellers have been vocal about the effects of the backlash on their businesses, especially in the last 10-10 sale. While they could choose to switch to Lazada or Facebook Marketplace, said option is not without complications. Meanwhile, Gonzaga remains “unbothered” by the controversy and even thanked the internet for all the attention.
One thing that cancelled personalities could consider a silver lining is the Filipinos’ willingness to give them a second chance, as revealed by the Milieu Insight study. This, coupled with the Filipinos’ short memory—a negative trait especially in the context of learning from history. Estrada’s fate is a case in point. Though unable to secure a Congressional seat, she still has a role to play in Congress, having been appointed as consultant on social services and promotions un` der the office of Speaker Martin Romualdez and of Tingog. Far from the noise her candidacy caused on social media, her recent appointment has not generated much social media attention. Incidentally, Romualdez was majority leader during the last Congress, and had voted against the ABS-CBN franchise renewal.
Whether Shopee will be given another chance, regardless of its decision to continue to engage the services of Gonzaga in their promotions and campaigns or not, remains to be seen. For now, we see that Jose Mari Chan is back as Shopee’s Christmas ambassador.