When we talk about cancel culture, as we all too frequently do in the Year of Our Lord 2021, there are typically two schools of thought: The first, which is frequently espoused by the smarmy, right-wing Ben Shapiro types, is that cancel culture is an uncontrollable beast that must be vanquished, a consequence of power-hungry, White Claw-and-avocado-toast-fueled, Wesleyan-educated, cement milkshake-wielding lefties running amok on social media without any thought to the lives they destroy in their wake. The second is that “cancel culture” as we think of it doesn’t exist so much as social media has brought about a much-needed reckoning for people who harbor harmful and outdated beliefs, and those bringing public figures’ transgressions to our attention are issuing a well-intentioned and urgent need for accountability.
But perhaps there is a third school of thought regarding cancel culture that merits consideration. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much “cancel culture” — neither the right-wing pundits cynically using it as a tool to incite rage, nor the people advocating for accountability themselves — as it is the platforms that set the stage for cancellation to take place, that amplify barely fact-checked, incendiary narratives without any consideration of context.
This was my immediate takeaway from the recent cancellation of Ellie Kemper, the button-nosed star of The Office and Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt who went viral on Sunday after photos of her surfaced in a 22-year-old local news story about her being crowned the queen of a pageant in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The pageant in question was the Veiled Prophet Ball, a 140-year-old ceremony sponsored by a semi-secret society consisting of wealthy white community leaders, which was founded by a former Confederate cavalryman in 1878. The Queen of Love and Beauty, as Kemper was crowned in 1999, is a virginal maiden selected from among the list of young debutantes who attend the ball, and is flanked by “pages,” or cherubic little girls dressed in all-white. Thanks to a reply to a tweet about the Veiled Prophet ball itself, in which a St. Louis native snarked that the Ball was a “fancy event put on by our local KKK,” the false narrative circulated that Kemper had been elected a “KKK queen.”
It’s important to note here that the roots of the Veiled Prophet Ball are indisputably and extremely problematic, but not, as far as anyone can tell, intertwined with the KKK. As explained by a 2014 Atlantic article that went viral again yesterday, the ball was founded explicitly as a way to establish the white male upper class’s dominance over poor black and white labor union members, and it has attracted intense criticism from activists in the city for years, including from the local group ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes), which crashed the ball in 1972 to unmask the Veiled Prophet. (The car belonging to one of the activists was later bombed and her house was vandalized.) And although the Ball started admitting black members in 1979 and has attempted to rebrand itself into a less creepy, more mainstream organization, it has still long been the focus of St. Louis activists who lambast it for reinforcing racist power structures in the city. (The white robes and pointy hat donned by an early version of the Prophet do bear an unfortunate resemblance to the hate group’s uniform, but the Ball predates the KKK adopting the white robe and hat by a few decades.)
This was, however, not the story that took hold on Twitter when the photos of Kemper dropped, with nearly every viral tweet about Kemper’s win referring to her as a “KKK queen.” This was in part a result of Kemper’s name trending on Twitter, garnering about 50,000 mentions over the past week, according to data from Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communication who studies platforms and misinformation at Clemson University. Trending topics on Twitter are determined via algorithm, but as of last year, in response to criticism about trends being gamed by bad actors to amplify misinformation, Twitter also started using a human curation team to add context to a trend in the form of a headline, brief summary, and a few exemplary tweets.
Although Twitter’s description of the Kemper story was fairly objective, many of the top tweets under the trend continued to promote the idea that Kemper was a “KKK pageant queen”; it also included tweets by right-wing provocateurs like Shapiro and Matt Walsh, who, in demonstrating the cyclical nature of how this works, criticized Twitter’s amplification of the narrative. (In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson told me, “a combination of algorithms and our curation team determine if a Tweet represents a trend by evaluating if the Tweet is very reflective of the trend and popular,” but that “the Tweets you’re referring to were purely algorithmic, not selected by our curation team.”) “Often half the reason a story like this has legs is because one side or the other is yelling, ‘Why does this story have legs?,’” Linvill tells me, pointing out that retweets of Shapiro’s tweet on Kemper constituted a substantial portion of the activity surrounding the story on social media.
As journalist Charlie Warzel wrote in his newsletter, the effect of Twitter’s algorithm amplifying the conversation, and the curation team’s attempts to unpack it, can’t really be understated because, in an effort to make the story more coherent, it drew incalculably more attention to the tweets that were spreading the misinformation in the first place. “The Trending widget, while attempting to add context, only throws fuel on the fire, giving news outlets the ability to write a piece about the controversy because it is now newsworthy by virtue of it ‘trending,’” he wrote. And due to the symbiotic relationship between platforms and the media, this turned out to be exactly what happened, with countless news outlets, from Slate to the Huffington Post to the Cut turning out near-identical, Google-optimized explainers of the Veiled Prophet Ball and its history. All succeeded at capitalizing on the virality of the story while only adding slightly more context to it and, as Warzel wrote, “try[ing] to distance themselves from any definitive stance” due to how radioactive the conversation had become. And they certainly did not do much to curb the idea that Kemper was a “KKK queen,” which is still being circulated on Twitter and now making the rounds on TikTok, with one such TikTok claiming Kemper has “ties to the KKK” garnering 1.5 million views.
Because Kemper has not commented on the controversy, it’s hard to argue in her defense or to state that the criticism of her involvement in the pageant is unfair. At the very least, it certainly is fair to suggest that a 19-year-old Princeton undergrad in the late 1990s could’ve entered the name of the pageant into AskJeeves or something, to know what she was getting into. It’s also hard to argue that the story itself was not newsworthy, or that its virality represented some massive failure on Twitter’s part (particularly in light of the fact that other misinformation that has gone viral on Twitter has been much, much more harmful). The goal of Twitter’s trending topics curation team is to add some semblance of context and balance to a story that is gaining traction on the platform, and one could argue that it did its job in this regard here.
But it’s worth asking exactly why certain incendiary conversations gain traction on social platforms over other, more nuanced but arguably more valuable ones. Whether Kemper was a “KKK pageant queen” seems to be less the point of this particular story than how we should be reexamining the racist and classist roots of largely white American institutions. It’s also worth asking whether a giant platform elevating an explosive allegation about a public figure without their comment, while adding minimal disclaimer or context — and in turn, encouraging more mainstream media outlets to do so as well — creates a healthy information ecosystem. This happens on the platform almost every day, to a degree that it’s pretty much impossible to point out just one isolated example.
It was easy to predict the cycle that would follow the Kemper story once she started trending on Twitter: outlets would dutifully write up the controversy for another 24 or 48 hours, thus ensuring more people would tweet about it, and then interest would plateau until a dubious photo or tweet from the next public figure came along. This is, in effect, exactly what happened (as of now, according to a graph provided by Linvill, use of Kemper’s name peaked yesterday, and is steadily plummeting). And it will happen again, and again, and again, until either we become more thoughtful about the content we consume and the narratives we choose to spread, or platforms become more thoughtful about how they choose to package and promote them.
Wed., June 2, 2021, 3:50 p.m. This post has been updated with comment from Twitter.