But all the comic hysteria on the right doesn’t mean the threat is entirely illusory. In fact, my efforts to understand a small claim of cancel culture suggest that it’s less intentional but more pervasive than we realize.
Consider Republic Book Publishers, a relatively new company in Washington, D.C., devoted to conservative titles. Cancel culture is part of the firm’s origin myth. At its fancy launch party in 2019, one author was invited to address the crowd: Alec Klein. He had resigned from Northwestern University after dozens of women accused him of sexually inappropriate behavior and bullying. He denied those accusations, but his memoir was dropped by its publisher. Newly born Republic swooped in and agreed to release the book, vanquishing cancel culture in the grand tradition of free speech!
Recently, Republic played the cancel culture card again, and the particulars of the case sounded so ridiculous that I decided to check it out.
It all started last fall when Republic published “Old Abe,” a historical novel by John Cribb about President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Hoping to catch some holiday sales, the publisher tried to buy an ad for the novel on Facebook. Weirdly, the ad was rejected. In a cryptic note, Facebook said it “didn’t comply with our Advertising Policies.”
What policies? In response to relentless misinformation about the presidential election circulated by Donald Trump and his ilk, Facebook has established rules requiring additional transparency from advertisers. It’s also temporarily blocked advertisements related to “Social Issues, Elections or Politics.” For some reason, Republic’s ad for “Old Abe” had triggered Facebook’s prohibition, suggesting perhaps an overly protective attitude toward the election of 1860. (“Stoppeth the Steal!”)
Undeterred, Republic submitted the additional information that Facebook requested about the publisher’s identity. “We followed all the protocols and jumped through all the hoops,” Republic’s ad designer tells me. “I had to submit my driver’s license as verification and wait almost two weeks to receive a PIN code in the U.S. Mail. Once received, I verified myself and still got denied.” Four times.
In January, Cribb vented his frustration in an essay titled “Facebook Cancels Abe Lincoln,” published by the conservative site RealClearPolitics. “Maybe a Facebook ad checker thinks Lincoln isn’t woke enough,” Cribb wrote. And who can blame him for feeling exasperated? By all appearances, Facebook had spurned his perfectly reputable historical novel simply because it was released by a right-wing publisher. Since that narrative fit the prevailing conservative thesis, Cribb’s cause gained traction on Fox News — boom!
In a sign of the times, Republic began to use Facebook’s rejection as a peg to market the novel. A news release announced, “Following the lead of Twitter, Google, and others who had cancelled [President Donald Trump], Facebook deemed it appropriate to cancel President Abraham Lincoln.”
With that, Republic saw sales for “Old Abe” soar.
Like any invincible monopoly, Facebook never told Republic exactly why its ads were rejected. I reached out to the publisher and author and offered to look into the case. A publicist sent me copies of email confirming their account of getting repeatedly rejected.
My first attempts to reach Facebook were no more successful than Republic’s, but I had more free time. I spent many days trying to get a definitive answer from the social media company.
It turns out that Facebook had not canceled Abraham Lincoln because Silicon Valley hates liberty or wants to repress books from conservative publishers. In fact, I was assured that no one at Facebook had read Cribb’s novel or passed any judgment on Republic.
In the end, the ads for “Old Abe” were banned because they contained a blurb from former vice president Mike Pence calling it “the best book on President Lincoln I have ever read.”
Now, I realize that we live in politically volatile times, but as provocations go, “The best book on President Lincoln I have ever read” is not exactly “Vive la révolution!” And, besides, what has Pence done to render even his book recommendations too incendiary to print? Is he like some Irish Republican Army terrorist whose words are banished from British television?
Facebook says it’s not singling out conservatives; it’s merely blocking any ads from the right and the left that could imperil our civil order. But in practice that’s as ridiculous as it is specious. All ads reflect social issues and politics. Consumerism itself stems from a particular social and political point of view. Facebook’s ad ban and its imperious claim to objectivity are symptoms of the company’s misguided understanding of what America needs from social media. The masters of Silicon Valley may want human-free efficiency, but the cure for conspiracies against our democracy will never be automated censorship.
Unfortunately, the right’s shrill complaints about cancel culture obscure this far more present and complex problem. The need for intelligent editorial judgment is not a valid excuse to let social media algorithms carpet bomb free speech. If it faced actual competition — or legal peril — Facebook could easily distinguish between advocating a violent attack on the Capitol and recommending a novel about the 16th president.
Lincoln deserves better and so do we.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.