Americans have become aware of the phrase “cancel culture,” according to a new Pew Research Center survey. And when it comes to calling out other people for posting potentially offensive content on social media, the public has become somewhat more likely to see this type of behavior as punishing people who didn’t deserve it, rather than holding them accountable.
Overall, 61% of US adults say they have heard at least a fair amount about the phrase “cancel culture,” up from 44% in September 2020, the first time the Center asked about the term. Since then, several major news stories have highlighted the phrase, while politicians and the media have debated the term and what it means.
The share of Americans who are unfamiliar with the term “cancel culture” has shrunk 17 percentage points since 2020. But there are still about four-in-ten who say they have heard not too much (16%) or nothing at all (23 %) about the phrase.
Awareness of cancel culture has grown across demographic groups, but one of the largest increases has come among older adults. The share of adults ages 65 and older who say they have heard a great deal or a fair amount about cancel culture has risen from 33% in 2020 to 53% today.
Pew Research Center has a long history of studying the tone and nature of online discourse, as well as emerging internet trends. This analysis focuses on American adults’ familiarity with the term “cancel culture” and their perceptions about calling out others on social media. For this analysis, we surveyed 5,074 US adults from April 25 to May 1, 2022.
Everyone who took part in the survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way, nearly all US adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the US adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
Here are the questions, responses and methodology used for this analysis.
Despite this increase, adults under 30 remain the most likely age group to say they have heard of the phrase. About three-quarters of 18-to 29-year-olds (77%) say they have heard at least a fair amount about the phrase, with 53% saying they have heard a great deal. Roughly six-in-ten adults ages 30 to 49 and about half of adults 50 and older say they have heard a great deal or fair amount about the term.
College graduates also stand out as being more likely to have heard of cancel culture: 77% say they have heard at least a fair amount about it, compared with 63% of those with some college education and 45% of adults with a high school diploma or less formal education.
Cancel culture is a highly politicized topic, and Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to have heard about it. Around six-in-ten Republicans and GOP-leaning independents (63%) have heard a great deal or fair amount about the term, as have a similar share of Democrats and Democratic leaners (62%).
When accounting for ideology, liberal Democrats (79%) and conservative Republicans (69%) are more likely than their more moderate counterparts within each party to say they have heard at least a fair amount about cancel culture. However, liberal Democrats stand out as the most likely group to be familiar with the term.
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 US 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.
Views on this question continue to differ widely by partisan affiliation. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say that, in general, calling people out on social media for posting offensive content holds them accountable (65% vs. 34%). Conversely, 62% of Republicans – but only 32% of Democrats – believe this type of action generally punishes people who didn’t deserve it. However, the share of Democrats who see this behavior as punishment has risen 10 points since 2020. There has also been a 6-point increase in the share of Republicans who see calling out others on social media as unjustly punishing people.
Among Republicans, conservatives are more likely than moderate or liberal Republicans to see calling out others for sharing potentially offensive content on social media as generallying people who didn’t deserve it (65% vs. 57%). Similarly, Republican men are more likely than Republican women to say they see this behavior as a form of punishment (68% vs. 56%).
There are no differences in Democrats’ views by definition, but Democratic women are more likely than their male counterparts to say they see calling out others as a form of accountability (69% vs. 61%).
There are also gender differences on this question among Americans overall. Women are more likely than men to say that when people publicly call out others on social media for posting content that might be considered offensive, it is more likely to hold people accountable for their actions (56% vs. 45%); Conversely, men are more likely to say this behavior is more likely to punish people who didn’t deserve it (52% vs. 38%).
There are also differences by race and ethnicity. Black adults stand out as particularly likely to see calling out others on social media as a form of accountability, with 71% saying this is the case. Somewhat smaller shares of Hispanic and Asian adults say the same (61% each), while 44% of White adults say they see calling out others on social media for potentially offensive content as generally holding people accountable. White adults are somewhat more likely to say this behavior generally punishes people who didn’t deserve it (51%). Roughly four-in-ten Hispanic and Asian adults share that view (38% each), as do 26% of Black adults.
Emily A. Vogels is a research associate focusing on internet and technology at Pew Research Center.