Over the past several years, cancel culture has become a deeply contested idea in the nation’s political discourse. There are plenty of debates over what it is and what it means, including whether it’s a way to hold people accountable or a tactic to punish others unjustly, or a mix of both.

To better understand how the U.S. public views the concept of cancel culture, Pew Research Center asked Americans in September 2020 to share – in their own words – what they think the term means and, more broadly, how they feel about the act of calling out others on social media. The Center’s new data essay explores the responses to this survey, showcasing direct quotes from Americans, and finds a public deeply divided – including over the very meaning of the phrase.

The survey of 10,093 U.S adults, conducted using the Center’s American Trends Panel, finds that 44% of Americans say they have heard at least a fair amount about the phrase “cancel culture,” including 22% who have heard a great deal. Still, an even larger share (56%) say they’ve heard nothing or not too much about it, including 38% who have heard nothing at all.

Respondents who had heard about “cancel culture” were given the chance to explain in their own words what they think the term means. Some 49% of those familiar with the term said it describes actions people take to hold others accountable; 14% of adults who had heard at least a fair amount about cancel culture described it as a form of censorship, such as a restriction on free speech or as history being erased. A similar share (12%) characterized cancel culture as mean-spirited attacks used to cause others harm.

For example:

• “[Cancel culture is] a method of withdrawing support for public figures or companies. It can also be considered to be used as a form of online shaming on social media platforms.” –Woman, 50s, Moderate Democrat

• “[Cancel culture is] destroying a person’s career or reputation based on past events in which that person participated, or past statements that person has made, even if their beliefs or opinions have changed.” – Man, 50s, Conservative Republican

Five other distinct descriptions of the term cancel culture also appeared in Americans’ responses: people canceling anyone they disagree with, consequences for those who have been challenged, an attack on traditional American values, a way to call out issues like racism or sexism, or a misrepresentation of people’s actions. About one-in-ten or fewer described the phrase in each of these ways.

The survey also asked about the more general act of calling out others on social media for posting content that might be considered offensive – and whether this kind of behavior is more likely to hold people accountable or punish those who don’t deserve it. Fully 58% of U.S. adults say in general, calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, while 38% say it is more likely to punish people who don’t deserve it.

People’s partisan affiliations are connected to their answers on these issues. Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party are far more likely than Republicans and GOP leaners to say that, in general, calling people out on social media for posting offensive content holds them accountable (75% vs. 39%). Conversely, 56% of Republicans – but just 22% of Democrats – believe this type of action generally punishes people who don’t deserve it.

Examples of respondents’ comments include:

• “I think people need to be called out when they say something offensive on social media, because if you’re brave enough to say it then you should be brave enough to be accountable for your actions and be able to deal with whatever happens because of it.” – Woman, 50s, Liberal Democrat who said calling people out on social media is holding them accountable

• “Groupthink is rampant on social media, and social media rewards people who virtue signal just to get affirmation. This leads to hypersensitivity to perceived offenses and people becoming offended on behalf of another person (who may or may not be offended themselves)…. Thus, some will ruthlessly attack people perceived to be in the wrong in order to get affirmation.” –Man, 40s, Conservative Republican who said calling people out on social media is punishing people who didn’t deserve it

Overall, the data essay features 180 direct quotes from Americans, highlighting the range of perspectives and interpretations of cancel culture, and it provides insight into why people feel the way they do about this topic. The quotes and opinion data in this essay come from a survey of 10,093 U.S. adults conducted online Sept. 8-13, 2020. The margin of error for the full survey sample is plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.

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