May 28, 2021

By Emily A. Vogels, Monica Anderson, Margaret Porteus, Chris Baronavski, Sara Atske, Colleen McClain, Brooke Auxier, Andrew Perrin and Meera Ramshankar

People have challenged each other’s views for much of human history. But the internet – particularly social media – has changed how, when and where these kinds of interactions occur. The number of people who can go online and call out others for their behavior or words is immense, and it’s never been easier to summon groups to join the public fray.

The phrase “cancel culture” is said to have originated from a relatively obscure slang term – “cancel,” referring to breaking up with someone – used in a 1980s song. This term was then referenced in film and television and later evolved and gained traction on social media. 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. And some argue that cancel culture doesn’t even exist.

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 survey finds a public deeply divided, including over the very meaning of the phrase.

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