‘I’m just a kid’: The toxic selectivity of TikTok cancel culture

The TikTok app has undoubtedly taken the world by storm, with 800 million users around the globe. Along with the app itself gaining fame, select TikTok users have also shot to extreme levels of popularity in a matter of months, amassing armies of dedicated fans. While there is nothing wrong with TikTok users supporting their favorite creators, a problematic culture has begun to fester within these fan bases when it comes to “cancel culture.”

Cancel culture refers to social media and press members denouncing public figures in response to offensive or insensitive behavior. While the act of “canceling” has been around for years, it has taken a bizarre turn with TikTok celebrities.

TikTok cancel culture exists between two extremes: no consequences for offensive behavior, or a flood of hatred so strong that the person receives death threats at their doorstep. 

Take user Nessa Barrett, a popular creator with 7.3 million followers. She recently posted, then deleted, a video of her doing a sexual dance to a song from the Quran. Users were quick to criticize her, explaining how offensive her actions were to Islamic individuals. This prompted her to post an apology video in which she said, “I think I’m sorry if anyone was offended,” and justified her actions by stating that her stepmother is of Egyptian heritage.

Barrett’s actions were not simply ignorant, but belittling to an entire religion. However, following her, “I think I’m sorry” act, Barrett has faced almost zero consequences. After her (frankly terrible) apology video, she took a two-day break from TikTok, only to return to posting the same videos as she had been in the past. Her followers flooded her comments section with phrases like, “Like this if you forgive Nessa” and, “Don’t listen to the haters queen!” Loyal followers also responded to the dwindling comments rightfully calling out her offensive behavior with justifications such as, “She apologized—what else do you expect her to do?” Barrett has yet to, and likely will never address the incident a second time, and her follower count has only grown in the meantime.

TikTok star @lilhuddy (real name Chase Hudson) likewise experienced the lenient end of cancel culture, with his over 19 million followers rushing to his aid after a video of him saying the n-word leaked in June of 2019.

In response to the video, Hudson issued a half-hearted apology to the black community and said he regretted using the slur. However, he faced no consequences for using the derogatory word outside of a few days of negative comments. Hudson’s follower count actually grew by millions over the past few months as his supporters rallied around him, claiming his apology was sufficient and then basically forgetting about the incident. While it’s unfair to claim that his life should have been completely ruined by the incident, it is ridiculous that this was no more than a negligible bump in the road for Hudson’s career. 

Barrett and Hudson faced practically no consequences for their behavior, with both actually seeing their follower counts grow as a result of their actions. Openly using racial slurs or mocking a sacred verse of a religious text are inexcusable actions that cannot be blamed on ignorance or a “lapse in judgement.” So, why haven’t either of these creators faced any real consequences? 

The answer lies within the way they have marketed themselves to their fans. Both Hudson and Barrett made a career off of their looks and have gained an army of fans that defend their every move. Thus, when exposed for offensive content, fans rushed to their defense, claiming that it was a mistake and that their half-hearted apologies were enough. 

Barrett employs a facade of innocence, and pins herself as too naive to have known better. Her apology is full of victim card-playing trademarks like, “I never meant to offend anyone,” or, “I wasn’t aware of the significance of the verse.” Barrett portrays herself as the innocent kid who doesn’t know any better, despite being almost 18 years old. 

TikTok cancel culture exists between two extremes: no consequences for offensive behavior, or a flood of hatred so strong that the person receives death threats at their doorstep. ”

— Annie Cerria and Jessi Schlewitt

For Hudson, being an attractive white teenager has allowed him to play the victim card as well. His fans also blindly defend him in hopes that he will pay their comments any sort of attention, despite the fact that his actions are completely inexcusable. 

With massive followings, Barrett and Hudson’s fans overwhelm the comments sections, dismissing backlash against the creators’ racist and insensitive actions as “hate.” When people rightfully called out the two for their actions, both users’ supporters left comments like, “Stay strong against the hate,” and “Cyberbullying literally causes suicide guys—please watch what you’re saying.” By dismissing legitimate accusations of racism and insensitivity as “bullying,” creators are further removed from ever having to acknowledge their mistakes, and instead can fall deeper into the role of the innocent victim. 

This also exposes the other extreme of TikTok cancel culture: an onslaught of criticism to an absurd extent. However, this is most commonly seen with creators who don’t market themselves as innocent children, but as adults, and therefore, face much more harsh criticism than others. 

User @emmuhlu (real name Emma Lu) received extreme backlash beginning several weeks ago when videos of her using racial slurs leaked online. Her comments section has since been riddled with vicious messages attacking Lu (a white teenager), and much of it still continues. 

“Those videos of me show an ignorant, obnoxious, stupid person who thought that saying blatantly offensive things was somehow funny or not serious,” said Lu in an apology video. “It makes me sick that I used to say things like that. No amount of words can take away from the damage I caused.” 

Because the leaked videos featured Lu at 14 years old, she discussed in another one of her many long apology videos that she has since changed. “Me being young is not excusing my blatant ignorance and how badly this hurt and disgusted so many people,” said Lu. “What I used to be eats me alive… I am not even a sliver of the same person that I was in those videos.”

Many of the comments under this video continue to attack her, claiming she is “only sorry because she was caught” and demanding her to “get off this app.” 

The backlash far exceeded an aggressive comments section, however. Because Lu handled the incident in an objectively more mature way than Bassett’s “I think I’m sorry” video, users felt more justified to dig the knife in further, going as far as sending death threats over social media and in letters. 

“My parents’ names and phone numbers have been leaked. They’re being called,” said Lu in another apology video. “My old address from New York has been leaked. I don’t even live there anymore—a child and his family live there. Please stop. I was so terribly wrong and disgusting, but please see me.”

Cancel culture preys on those who present themselves as an adult, not a naive child who gains a following based on physical appearance. By joining the masses in canceling less-popular creators whose fan bases are not rooted in their attractiveness, “haters” feel they are morally superior. What many of these commenters neglect is that there is an opportunity for growth for users who have been “canceled;” ironically, it is those who take this opportunity that are punished. 

This does not condone any of the leaked videos of any of these creators. It is also not our place to accept or reject any of the apologies, considering we are not members of the offended groups. 

But, while it is not our place to decide which apology is deserving of acceptance, it is our responsibility to note that users cannot pick and choose who is the recipient of incessant death threats versus who is the attractive white teen that, “doesn’t deserve this,” and the doe-eyed kid that, “didn’t know any better.” Cancel culture encourages a biased selection of the innocent and the guilty, even when they are both perpetrators of the same crime.