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Myths of Censorship: The Realities and Misperceptions of “Cancel Culture” (WP-22-07)

Nicholas Dias, James Druckman, and Matthew Levendusky

Few principles are as central to American democracy as freedom of speech. Yet, some argue “cancel culture”—i.e., censoring offensive speech—undermines this crucial tenet. The authors offer a theory of why people “cancel” others and test it using a conjoint experiment with a representative sample of Americans. They find that when Americans engage in canceling, they do so because of what was said, regardless of the speaker’s identity. Cancellation reflects an attempt to redress speech considered harmful, not punishment borne of partisan or racial animosity. But the researchers also show that the public is significantly misinformed about cancellation: People overestimate the extent to which canceling occurs and they misconstrue why it happens. Even though partisan bias does not cause canceling, (mis-)beliefs about canceling could exacerbate partisan animosity. These findings help to unravel the dynamics of contemporary American free speech.

Nicholas Dias, Annenberg School for Communication and Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Matthew Levendusky, Professor of Political Science and Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy, Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania

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