According to a report in Rolling Stone, the very online campaign for the release of Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League was a battle waged in no small part by bots. The report is gossipy fun and well worth reading in full—multiple sources tell reporter Tatiana Siegel that Snyder, discoursing on his enemies to a studio executive, said, “I will destroy them on social media,” and it gets more absurd from there—but the main impression the reader is left with is that the pro-Snyder movement was perhaps not quite as organic as it seemed. One interesting thing is that it’s not clear how much that would matter—the behavior of most fandoms when they’re incensed, after all, is not all that different from bots to begin with.
Rolling Stone’s article goes to great lengths to describe the bot activity in various Snyder-related hashtags as unusual. (These hashtags, as a reminder, were set up, ostensibly by fans, to persuade Warner Bros. to release a non-existent “Snyder cut” of Justice League after the director left the project while it was in production; the movie was completed by Joss Whedon and an incredibly long Snyder-directed version was, eventually, released.) The outlet commissioned reports from three different cybersecurity and social-media firms, and also quotes from reports that were commissioned by Warner Bros. According to reports commissioned by Rolling Stone, at least 13% of the accounts using the hashtags related to the Snyder fandom were deemed fake—much higher than the average of around 5%. Because people and bots using this hashtag would often target specific Warner Bros. executives with implied death threats, Rolling Stone reports, the studio hired cybersecurity firms to analyze its contents. While all acknowledge that any popular hashtag will have bot activity, at a few points in the article different people argue that if Snyder was scheming behind the scenes at the Warner Bros. studios, then these bots must have been under his control as well. (One site, forsnydercut.com, was at one point registered by an ad agency, but Rolling Stone was unable to establish a connection between Snyder and a person apparently behind the site, whom he denied knowing or hiring.)
While this report is full of juicy gossip surrounding Snyder’s behavior towards the people he felt had wronged him, it probably somewhat overstates the power of robot armies; whatever else Snyder was or wasn’t in control of, he certainly knew how to present himself to a fandom in order to garner its sympathy. Whedon’s take on Justice League was unpopular with both general audiences and die-hard comic book fans; Snyder is very open about his lifelong love of comics, and positioned himself as the guy who would get it right. If you’ve ever seen a fandom really upset about anything, or rallying to the defense of someone, you know that mass outcry or toxicity don’t need to be the products of manipulation to seem like they are.
Take the Voltron fandom. A particularly vocal part of the fandom wanted two characters to get together, to the point of leaking confidential materials from the animation studio in order to blackmail them. There are many other fandoms that have gone to extreme lengths to get what they want—earlier this year, Sims 4 players in Russia demanded that the developers release an upcoming expansion pack in Russia that the development team believed would violate Russian anti-gay censorship laws. At the time, sorting through the misinformation was almost impossible because so many people with accounts created at around the same time were talking about the topic in increasingly extreme terms. But determining which of these accounts were “real” or not was also impossible. There are only a few ways to tweet about being really mad about something, it turns out, and if that’s the only reason why you have your Twitter account, you will sound like a bot.
Having both been the object of the Snyder fandom’s ire and a critic they feel “gets it,'' I feel very sure that even if the Snyder-related hashtags began with bots, the pro-Snyder movement has been sustained with human beings. A lot of people tweeting about the same thing angrily will feel like a harassment campaign when it's directed at you, and look like bot activity when you observe it, but given the nature of the Internet, it doesn’t really matter whether those are fake accounts or a bunch of people who are mad enough about their hyperfixation to tweet about it 12 hours a day. Even if 13% of the user activity was bots, which is higher than average, that still means over 80% of the activity was organic fandom anger.
Hell, one or two people can even use a bot account or automated tweets to achieve the same effect. In the very first season of American Idol, around 100 people used auto dialers to vote thousands of times for their favorite singers. K-pop fans have been banned over and over on Twitter under the assumption that they’re bots because they post so much. One researcher found that the long term negative reaction to director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars film on Twitter was not necessarily a product of bots, but trolls—real human beings who spend their precious moments on earth trying to get a rise out of people online. Before the Internet, fans used to create letter-writing campaigns to save their favorite shows or ask for another Star Trek movie. Now, they take to the Internet. If Snyder did anything, it was understand what a modern fandom looks like and how they behave. They did the rest themselves.