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In the spring of 2021, more than three years after Justice League landed in theaters, Warner Bros. released Zack Snyder's Justice League, a sprawling, ambitious HBO Max film event that served as both a director's cut and major expansion of the original film. The release came after years of fan demands to "Release the Snyder Cut" on social media, a movement driven by both a sincere desire to simply see Snyder's preferred version of the film and a persistent dissatisfaction with Warners' handling of the DC Extended Universe.
The Snyder Cut fan campaign succeeded despite a certain infamy and a tendency in some corners toward aggressive online behavior. From the beginning, there were questions as to how much of the campaign, and the trolling that often went along with it, was coming from legitimate social media presences. Now, a new report from Rolling Stone reveals that an unusually high percentage of Snyder Cut-affiliated social media accounts were "inauthentic" bots manufactured to keep the number spiking.
The report, which is based on an internal investigation commissioned by Warner Bros. to examine, among other things, bullying of DC executives online, reveals that about 13% of all Snyder Cut social media accounts were apparently "inauthentic," a number far above the three-to-five percent of bot accounts usually associated with such online campaigns. Multiple analytics firms asked to review the findings by Rolling Stone confirmed a large presence of bot accounts in the Snyder Cut campaign.
“There are certain patterns that bots give off that we saw here," Becky Wanta, the chief information officer and chief technology officer at Q5id, told Rolling Stone. "They arrive at almost the same time in huge numbers. And many times the origin of thousands or even millions of messages can be traced to a single source or two. Sometimes, they can be traced to unusual servers in remote countries. And their content will be precisely similar.”
According to the report, Warner Bros. launched the investigation in early 2021, employing a third-party cybersecurity firm along the way, after repeated instances of threats and violent imagery directed at executives from Snyder Cut-affiliated accounts. These included a frequently circulated image featuring the severed heads of executives including Geoff Johns and Toby Emmerich, and a campaign of abuse directed at former DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson, who deleted her Twitter account after frequent online harassment.
The full report at Rolling Stone is well worth reading, and includes claims from unnamed sources that Snyder himself allegedly hired a marketing firm to spur more fan engagement in the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice's divided reception in 2016 (Snyder denies this), as well as reports that one of the most prominent fan websites devised for the Snyder Cut campaign may have been secretly founded by a "digital marketing consultant," not a fan who was part of a grassroots movement.
It feels important to acknowledge in the wake of this report that, while a high number of bots do seem to have been involved in the campaign, the majority of Snyder Cut devotees do seem to have been real people with an interest in seeing the film released, and that the hate directed at DC executives and other social media users came from both bot and real accounts. It's also important to acknowledge, however, that while the movement contained toxicity in some corners, it was not entirely conducted in bad faith. Snyder Cut devotees were also able to, for example, raise a considerable amount of money for suicide prevention charities in the wake of the death of Snyder's daughter. It's a complex, often frustrating issue to dive into, but it's important to pay attention to the level of influence bot-driven accounts were able to achieve here, as one analyst told Rolling Stone.
“That’s my concern with the manipulation that’s happening inside these movements, relative to bots — you can drive the court of public opinion,” Wanta said. “It needs to be dealt with, because it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
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