Does ‘Cancel Culture’ Equal Accountability, Punishment, or Totalitarianism? (One Per Customer, Please)

Well the Doc opened up the old mailbag today and here’s what poured out.

Dear Dr. Ads,

There I was, minding my own business and checking out MediaPost’s Marketing Politics Weekly when I came across this Joe Mandese piece about a new ad campaign from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

Cancel Culture Campaign Equates It With ‘Totalitarianism’

At a time when the prevalence of “cancel culture” appears to be peaking in the United States, nonprofit free speech advocacy group FIRE is breaking new ads, as part of a multimedia campaign focusing on it.

The campaign, created by DeVito/Verdi, features out-of-home billboards (see above) and print media buys (see below), equating cancel culture to a form of totalitarianism.

What the hell, Doc – now all of a sudden we’re Communist China because a few people’s noses get out of joint?

– FIRED-UP

Dear F-U,

Cancel culture is America’s ultimate Rorschach test. In his MediaPost piece, Joe Mandese points to a recent Pew Research Center survey to illustrate the great divide in defining what cancel culture actually means.

The Center’s previous study of cancel culture showed that the term can mean different things to different people, so Pew Research Center asked Americans a separate question about whether calling out others on social media for posting content that might be considered offensive is more likely to hold people accountable or to punish those who didn’t deserve it.

Overall, 51% of U.S. adults say calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, while 45% say it is more likely to punish people who didn’t deserve it. But these views have shifted somewhat since September 2020. The share of adults who say this type of behavior is more likely to hold people accountable has decreased by 7 points, while the share who say it is more likely to punish people who didn’t deserve it has gone up by 7 points.

Helpful graphic.

And now – just to complicate things – comes FIRE’s ad campaign, which follows the group’s rebranding from “the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (originally to promote free speech on college campuses) to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression to broaden its mandate toward freedom of speech overall,” according to Mandese.

He also cites Josh Gerstein’s Politico piece reporting that FIRE “has raised $28.5 million for a planned three-year, $75 million litigation, opinion research and public education campaign aimed at boosting and solidifying support for free-speech values.”

Here’s a TV spot featuring two Emerson College students – K.J. Lynum and Sam Neves – “whose conservative group was suspended by the school’s president for circulating ‘China kinda sus’ stickers promoting the theory that a Chinese government lab caused the outbreak of Covid-19.”

And here’s a FIRE print ad banging a different drum.

Then again, it’s not like FIRE is all that and a bag of MLK chips, as Politico’s Josh Gerstein notes.

While FIRE has received praise from many free-speech advocates, some critics have said the group is a thinly veiled front for conservatives looking to promote their political agenda. Since its inception, FIRE has received funding from a variety of conservative foundations, including millions from some linked to billionaire Charles Koch.

The liberal Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch has published this roll call of FIRE’s right-wing associations.

Connection to Conservative Dark Money Groups, Collaboration with Hate Group Alliance for Defending Freedom

FIRE has received millions of dollars in contributions from politically-active conservative nonprofits, including over $3.4 million from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, over $3.4 million from Donors Capital Fund and DonorsTrust, over $1.8 million from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, over $1.3 million from the Sarah Schaife Foundation, over $1 million from the Searle Freedom Trust, and over $1 million from the Stand Together Trust.

Progressive watchdog organization Media Matters included FIRE in a 2017 piece describing how groups funded by right-wing billionaires and dark money organizations influence college campuses. Media Matters says “FIRE has partnered with anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom for some of these cases. It has also frequently weighed in on sexual misconduct cases, arguing that the definition of sexual harassment should not include ‘large amounts of constitutionally protected expression, such as any unwanted “sexual comments, gestures, jokes, or looks,”‘ and defended campus organizations that use hateful rhetoric or seek to exclude potential group members based on sexual orientation.

In other words, FIRE at your own discretion.

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