On the evening of March 27, 2014, The Colbert Report tweeted the punchline to a joke about the Washington Redskins without the appropriate context, eliciting a barrage of negative responses.
Suey Park (@suey_park), a part-time Twitter activist, started the hashtag #CancelColbert to point out the fact that one cannot combat racism with racist comments. Her purpose was not to get the show cancelled, but rather “she saw the hashtag as a way to critique white liberals who use forms of racial humor to mock more blatant forms of racism.”
The Colbert Report’s original tweet was deleted within 34 minutes, but still thousands of tweets were posted using the #CancelColbert hashtag and it trended for nearly three straight days in the United States (meaning it was one of the top ten hashtags used in the U.S.). Many of those tweets were to support Park and point out the flawed logic of using racist jokes to critique racism, but many other tweets were aggressive and angry and personally directed to Park. Many people claimed she just didn’t understand humor, or the context of the tweet. Park received thousands of rape and death threats from Colbert fans, and was unable to leave home for nearly a week because of the high volume of violent threats. New hashtags were formed as a negative response to #CancelColbert, including #CancelSuey and #ChopSuey. Some journalists even claimed that Park brought these threats upon herself.
Park was interviewed for HuffPost Live by host Josh Zepps (a white man), so she could explain the logic behind #CancelColbert, but Zepps told Park she had a “stupid opinion” and Park was cut off.
Zepp’s treatment of Park sparked further outrage on Twitter, and you can read some of the conversation following the interview here. Many news outlets represented Park as an over-sensitive power hungry activist, who was just trying to further her personal agenda. These sources ignored the fact that a hashtag cannot trend with only one person using it; the thousands of people who were using #CancelColbert did not exist according to the media. Park was the lone madman with a “stupid opinion”. Even Colbert himself characterized #CancelColbert as a one-person movement while reporting on the hashtag for the Colbert Report: “To recap: A web editor I’ve never met posts a tweet in my name on an account I don’t control, outrages a hashtag activist, and the news media gets 72 hours of content. The system worked.” The representation of #CancelColbert as a one-person movement, started by a frivolous overly-sensitive woman, minimizes the experiences of thousands of Asian Americans (and other people of color) who contributed to the hashtag. The conversation that Park started by utilizing #CancelColbert was invalidated or totally ignored by the mainstream media.
The media reactions to #CancelColbert showed that even though Twitter can be used to give a voice to oppressed groups, the mass media can easily invalidate any statements these people make. Suey Park was demonized by the media and made to be the villain who wanted to cancel Colbert, and so she was a target for many racist and sexist violent threats. As one blogger stated, “if PoC [people of color] still can’t voice objections to racism without being subjected to intense scrutiny, then it is maybe worth reevaluating who gets to satirize race and what that satire means in the context of the dynamic it satirizes.”