Cancel Culture or Monetized Engagement?

Elizabeth Edel

“Cancel culture” and the discourse surrounding it in America has brought a new vigorous debate about the state of free speech in the nation.[1] In the past several years, “cancel culture” has become a nearly ubiquitous term weaponized by those who purport to defend freedom of speech, even though the actual cancellations it refers to might realistically be few and far between.[2] The phrase “cancel culture" might strike fear into those in the public eye, but in practice, there are many more examples of people who face merely a “slap on the wrist, [stay] quiet for a bit and then [get] on with their massive success.”[3] Still, TikTok content creators continue to be vetted by brands and the weight of possible cancellation is part of contract considerations for brands working with influencers.[4]

But is there a degree of scandal or outrage that can be used by influencers? Given the engagement-driven motivation of career influencers, it seems like there is. This is connected to the relative power of comments in the TikTok algorithm:  “comments play a more significant role than views or likes [...] you have to actually put in some effort to leave a comment. People have to spend at least a few seconds thinking of something to comment, opening the comment section, and then typing in their comment. This involves a lot more action [than] simply liking or viewing a video, which suggests that someone cared enough about the content to comment on it. That means the more comments you get for your video, the better TikTok will understand that your content is worth displaying to more people.”[5]

Anecdotally, TikTok influencers will casually mention that the people commenting on their videos with vitriol or even just plain negative feedback are only helping boost their content.[6] So while it might be painful to read negative comments, creators get the benefit of the engagement they bring—and they can opt into or out of reading their comments at all.

With this said, there is a clear incentive for creators to say or imply something that will spark a debate in their comment section. The question becomes where is the line between increasing debate and engagement and alienating yourself beyond the level where you can engage in partnerships to bring in revenue beyond the creator fund.

I think that as we get further from the height of “cancel culture” discourse that we saw in 2020, creators will be more willing to dabble into the outrageous to capture the attention of viewers and get them to engage through comments on their content. This is not to say that I think all content creators will start to post offensive content just for views, but there is definitely a group of people for whom the payoff of engagement beats out their desire to make enemies online, and those creators who don’t go as far can still walk right up to the line and lure people in with purposefully shocking “takes.” Critics of “cancel culture” may be quick to call this censorship of free speech because people are trying to stay behind the line, but I think that for those savvy creators trying to use the algorithm in this way, there is already such a level of planning that they are not necessarily speaking freely, but tactfully.


[1] Editorial Board, America Has a Free Speech Problem, N.Y. Times (Mar. 18, 2022), [] [].

[2] Id.

[3] Marc Burrows, Louis Ck’s Sold-Out Show At Madison Square Garden Proves There’s No Such Thing As Cancel Culture, Big Issue (Jan. 30, 2023), [] [] (explaining that ““Cancellation” doesn’t exist. Jeremy Clarkson writes about being cancelled from his column in the UK’s most-read newspaper. Katie Hopkins turns her own cancellation into a well-selling stand up comedy tour. Ezra Miller has been accused of harassment and assault and faces a charge for burglary, but Warner Brothers is still planning on releasing The Flash in June. Chris Brown is a violent abuser; last year he had five songs in the Billboard top 100 in the same week and next month will play a UK tour that includes six nights apiece at the O2 in London and Manchester Arena and four nights in Glasgow. That’s 300,000 tickets in just those three cities. Edgy columnists, celebrities and podcasters rail against a “cancel culture” that simply isn’t real”).

[4] Denise Langenegger, Navigating Cancel Culture on Your Influencer Marketing Campaigns, Tapfiliate (Jan. 25, 2022), [].

[5] Werner Geyser, Ultimate Guide on TikTok Comments (+ How to Drive Engagement) Influencer Marketing Hub (Sept. 2, 2022), [] [].

[6] See liss (@notliss), TikTok (July 13, 2021),