Guest post by Sabrina Tosi

Influencer Law Clinic series

1/25/20223 min read

Started as a harmless TikTok video where the content creator @meemshou complained about having been ghosted by a guy named Caleb and ended up as the hunt of the Internet’s latest target WestElmCaleb. 6’4, moustache, furniture designer at West Elm… that’s how half of nyc women recognised that they have been texting and going on dates with the same guy, sometimes even during the same day. From what they have been claiming, a guy named Caleb has been scrolling quite a bit on the online-dating app Hinge and has become famous for his ghosting technique: after sharing an ‘only-for-you’ Spotify playlist, a first date filled with good conversation and coffee at the same cafe, he would disappear leaving the women with another dating failure. “love bombing” has been the termed used to define this practice of “an attempt to influence another person with over-the-top displays of attention and affection”.[1]

It is impossible that the hashtag #WestElmCaleb has not yet clogged up your TikTok For You Page since it has reached more than 50 million views in less than a week on the video-sharing platform. The Internet found its new villain. And engagement-driven/avid social media platforms their business strategy.

Even though the guy has not done anything illegal, he has been targeted by society’s piled up annoyance towards todays’ dating culture of rapid swiping . It is the result of the so-called cancel culture that has arisen in social media in recent years. It has been defined by Pippa Norris in her paper as ‘collective strategies by activists using social pressures to achieve cultural ostracism of targets (someone or something) accused of offensive words or deeds.’[2]It is a replication of law enforcement and monitoring mechanisms that individuals feel the need to take upon themselves. Here is where the web sleuth dynamics rise in the name of ‘social justice’. Similar to the real-life manhunt case documented in ‘Don’t F**k with Cats’, the 2019 Netflix production. [3]

Clearly, the next questions are: what kind of justice is that? How can a crowd of strangers decide what is just and what is not and who needs to be blamed for it? How can we morally justify it? The same justice that is claimed by the internet sleuths is also denied to the targeted prey in the first place. Taken from this perspective, cancel culture must be seen in parallel with platform moderation, free speech protection, and censorship.[4] Platforms undertake such practises through their ‘terms of service’ and, specifically, through ‘community guidelines’ with the aim of governing users’ interactivity and creating a safe and accessible environment. The delicate balancing between freedom of expression and content moderation is further hindered by the extensive discretion that these platforms hold towards setting out their own regulatory regime.

Generally, however, this kind of content will hardly be labelled as behaviour or content that violates the social platform’s community guidelines as long as it does not fit under any of the guidelines’ categories (for instance, as long as it is not a clear and explicit incitement to violence or example of hate speech). The video posted by the user @meemshou that went initially viral and the content shared by other users in response is an example. The simple ‘publicly calling out’ has not been banned nor taken down by the platform. TikTok provides the following guidelines regarding hate speech: ‘we define hate speech or behaviour as content that attacks, threatens, incites violence against, or otherwise dehumanizes an individual or a group on the basis of the following protected attributes: Race, Ethnicity, National Origin, Religion, Caste, Sexual orientation, Sex, Gender, Gender identity, Serious disease, Disability and Immigration status’. Hateful behaviour does not prevent these episodes from happening since they do not fall under any of the categories[5] under which it is prohibited. More likely it is, however, that it falls under the guideline against abusive behaviour (always at the discretion of the platform), which reads as follows: ‘​​We remove all expressions of abuse, including threats or degrading statements intended to mock, humiliate, embarrass, intimidate, or hurt an individual.’

Once your name and face have been all over the internet, disappearing from the online world (and even the offline one) seems like the only solution, which is exactly what the same West Elm Caleb did. Perhaps TikTok could have been more careful in detecting those videos as including ‘degrading statements intended to humiliate an individual’, or perhaps those videos are just another example of the primal idea of the internet as the space where freedom of expression gets the upper hand, even at the cost of others?

[1] Love Bombing: The Dangerous Red Flag You May Miss <https://www.garbo.io/blog/love-bombing>

[2] P. Norris, Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality? <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/00323217211037023?casa_token=xRR9i36HUGYAAAAA:SH2No1zNKC54OTfVTorYPYvqI8l3NAF1SZnIIS9Q-tkqEvzQeod8uxGOL4xImTWpX–iBH1PF_Y>

[3] Don’t F**k with Cats, Netflix production.

[4] L. Burmah, ‘The Curious Cases of Cancel Culture’, California State University – San Bernardino <https://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2440&context=etd>

[5] TikTok’s Community Guidelines <https://www.tiktok.com/community-guidelines?lang=en >