Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The fight against trolls goes beyond Captain Marvel, YouTube, and Rotten Tomatoes

Illustration for article titled The fight against trolls goes beyond Captain Marvel, YouTube, and Rotten Tomatoes
Photo: Chuck Zlotnick (Marvel Studios)

It was as predictable as a lie from Loki: Before Captain Marvel even opened, Rotten Tomatoes was getting bombarded with negative reviews from sexist dipshits trying to tank the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because the movie had the temerity to explicitly be a woman’s narrative, and star Brie Larson had the audacity to suggest that it might be cool to have a slightly more diverse group of journalists covering the film. Before you could say, “What a blatant bad-faith twisting of her words and actions into some weirdo claim of anti-white-guy bias,” the hordes of online chuds sprang into action.


Thankfully, this time Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t having any of it. The site changed its policy, purging the advance reviews of the movie and instituting a new rule preventing such ahead-of-time tactics in the future. Which brings us to the obvious outcome today, the first day of Captain Marvel’s wide release: A new round of trolls review-bombing the film en masse. But again, Rotten Tomatoes is responding. And it’s not the only one: YouTube has also begun taking action against some of the more noxious corners of its expansive universe of videos, also to combat the creepy and politically repellent campaigns against Brie Larson, the film, and more. Unfortunately, this problem is bigger than Captain Marvel—and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Within hours of Captain Marvel’s release, an orchestrated troll campaign went into action. Tens of thousands of negative reviews, largely from people who almost certainly hadn’t seen the movie, flooded Rotten Tomatoes, tanking the aggregate score of the newest MCU entry. That this was an obvious bad-faith trolling tactic is clear from the numbers: As ComicBook.com notes, in less than 12 hours, the site had racked up almost 60,000 reviews for Captain Marvel—compare that to the 53,000 reviews given to Avengers: Infinity War over the entirety of its theatrical run, and it was immediately apparent this was a troll-led bombing campaign. The site has already purged roughly 54,000 phony reviews, and presumably that process will continue for some time. Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi director who knows unfortunately all too well the effects of concerted efforts from some of the worst people on the internet, had a bit of fun pointing out that these campaigns are equivalent to the site’s signature seal of approval:

YouTube, meanwhile, has been quietly fighting the trolls in its own way. The Verge reports the video-sharing service cleverly repurposed the search term “Brie Larson” as a newsworthy search item, meaning if you went looking for videos about the actor, the YouTube algorithm prioritized authoritative and reputable sources as the top results—Entertainment Tonight, ABC, CBS, CNN, and the like. This had the immediate and salutary effect of bumping noxious and misogynistic videos from individuals creators out of the top results, meaning it became much more difficult to sniff out those openly offensive rants about Larson’s presence in the MCU, dimwitted MRA types demanding boycotts of Captain Marvel, and so on.

This is an extension of what the platform began doing with its algorithm in the fall of 2017, when people noticed conspiracy videos were being favored over actual news reporting in the wake of mass shootings, and the YouTube Kids app was discovered to be a hidden realm of nightmares. Since then, the company has continually struggled to develop better strategies for combatting these problems, as the millions of content creators fighting to get their videos seen understandably fear overreach by YouTube in its efforts to fight trolls, hate speech, and more. But the re-tagging of hot-button names and topics in the short term does seem to help, at least when it comes to preventing morons turning the basic humanity and kindness of calls for diversity into faux-outrage clickbait—which too easily turns into other people’s genuine outrage thanks to misinformation, aggrieved reactionary politics, or outright racism/sexism, the Venn diagram of those three overlapping pretty well to begin with.

Unfortunately, this issue isn’t disappearing, and the faulty element isn’t algorithms; it’s people. A problem that was already all too disturbing in the past—the way the internet’s search engines actually strengthened and emboldened dangerously misguided people, thanks to the ease with which lies and propaganda vaulted over actual facts and history to spread conspiracy and Nazi-style ideologies—came to the forefront with the election of Donald Trump, and the key role that online manipulation of base fears and paranoia played in his victory. As SearchEngineLand editor Danny Sullivan puts it in the aforementioned Guardian exposé, “It’s the equivalent of going into a library and asking a librarian about Judaism and being handed 10 books of hate.” After more than 20 years of this Wild West of misinformation, the individuals who absorbed it and invested it with belief and commitment are now all over the world—and they’re talking to one another.

These troll campaigns are just one of the results of a digitally connected society communicating online in the 21st century, and while good-faith efforts to do what we can (improving algorithms, pushing back against anti-science conspiracy theorists and purveyors of hate speech on social media) will and should continue, the people whose minds have already been poisoned by such propaganda are becoming ever more set in their ways. Call them “alt-right” or call them what they are—bigots—we can already predict their reactions to certain things before they even happen. A woman of color playing a starring role in a Star Wars film will become the target of online harassment; the first Marvel movie starring a woman will get a review bombing campaign. (There’s sadly some reactionary shitheads on the left, too, as Ruby Rose found out in the mix of toxic vitriol she endured from all sides of the political spectrum in the wake of being cast as Batwoman.)


How do we deal online with these people who are already here, already conditioned to hate, and don’t need any further videos from Alex Jones to justify their abhorrent worldviews and behaviors? (Let’s not get started on bots.) Opinions range from the old school “don’t feed the trolls” approach to an insistence on confrontational opposition. There’s even the “fuck these people, don’t even dignify their existence” attitude shared by some who have already endured sufficient oppression and degradation to have no patience for those who insist on “understanding the mindset” of anyone from spittle-flecked Trump rally-goers to MRA dudebros. While wholly understandable, it also falls into the very trap of seeing another group of people as less than, you know, people—the very thing that should be the guiding light of any approach to fighting reactionary hatred.

I’ll freely cop to not knowing what to do. Barring the temperance of a saint (or a British professor who engages with trolls one-on-one until they change their ways), any reasonable person is probably going to find their attitude changing from day to day. Some days you’re angry, some you’re exhausted, and some you just want it all to go away. Unfortunately, troll campaigns aren’t going anywhere, and their effects will continue to be seen. So it falls on each of us to ask hard questions of ourselves, and weigh each one as it comes, as to whether it merits our involvement, be it speaking out against the trolls or engaging in some form of online activism. Sometimes, we can just let the mess sort itself out—Captain Marvel’s Rotten Tomatoes score isn’t exactly the biggest threat to diversity online. But like it or not, these little symptoms add up; some day, we might wake up to find the review bombing outliers have become the norm. Or to find the racist conspiracy theorist become President.


Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.