After years of anything-goes on the Internet, gatekeeping is back

The participatory promise of the early web has been poisoned by trolling and misinformation, and businesses are starting to push back

A scene from “The Promise”

A scene from “The Promise” (Open Road Films)

The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting article about the film industry’s problem with internet trolls. It seems that highly motivated armies of online miscreants are interfering with studios’ carefully plotted plans and releases.

The latest situation involves The Promise, an upcoming film (pictured above) about the Armenian genocide in World War I starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. The film’s Internet Movie Database page has been flooded with one-star reviews despite the fact that it hasn’t been released yet – it hits theatres on Apr. 21.

The culprits, according to the magazine, are troublemakers who frequent sites such as Incisozluk, the Turkish version of 4Chan, itself one of the internet’s main sources of poop disturbing.

The sites, which often act as launching pads for smear campaigns against entertainment properties that users don’t like for one reason or another, are being credited for sinking films before they even see the light of day.

4Chan and Reddit users, for example, organized against last year’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot and succeeded in attaching a stink to the movie, which ultimately tanked and lost $70 million (U.S.).

This is a problem for Hollywood, especially when it comes to already potentially controversial films such as The Promise.

“They know that the IMDb rating will stay with the film forever,” producer Eric Esrailian told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s a kind of censorship, really.”

The solution, at least in the case of this one film, is to fight fire with fire. As THR states: “On IMDb, The Promise now has an average of 4.2 stars thanks to more than 35,000 10-star ratings that have been left by supporters of the film to counter the more than 60,000 one-star ratings.”


There probably aren’t too many people who think this troll wars approach is a good and sustainable solution. Sooner or later, the trolls will figure out a new way to game the system. There’s also the issue of the IMDb score being completely unreliable.

The situation bears parallels to what’s happening with news overall and the role that Google and Facebook are playing in the transformation of media. With the two eating up the lion’s share of online advertising dollars, the pressure for internet companies to start acting like responsible media entities is increasing.

Both insist they are mere platforms that are informed and shaped by the input and desires of their users. But as the fake news epidemic has illustrated, the price of allowing users to run free and unchecked can be dire indeed.

Some governments have had enough. British MPs have blasted Google, Facebook and Twitter for their lack of efforts in cracking down on abuse and hate speech, while Germany is considering big penalties if they don’t do something about it.

The companies have taken some steps. Facebook has hired human editors to work with its algorithms while Google is trying to attach fact-checked bona fides to the stories it displays. Still, the companies continue to shirk the notion that they are indeed media entities akin to newspapers or broadcasters.

As a recent New Scientist editorial suggests, it’s time for that to change:

Excuses that the problem is too technically complex don’t wash: their engineers have proven adept at cracking down on, say, copyright violation when it suits the firms. Nor does an absolutist stance on free speech hold up. History is replete with examples of how a fair balance can be struck… The firms have enjoyed the privileges and profits of media for long enough: it’s time they picked up the responsibilities too.

The reasoning extends to IMDb and its owner Amazon too. The site simply can’t leave film scores up to whoever has the biggest army of trolls or bots. At some point, actual human editors are going to have to get involved in a meaningful way.

As much as the democratizing internet was supposed to remove the need for human gatekeepers, it’s increasingly looking like that was a bad idea. Left to their own devices – without sober oversight – communities tend to devolve and become governed by their lowest common denominators. Or at least by those who can shout the loudest.

Whether it’s social media or movie reviews, it’s clear the “platforms” have devolved into something resembling Lord of the Flies. They will inevitably have to change that by accepting their roles as media entities, either voluntarily or by government fiats, and it would be a good idea to re-introduce some adult supervision into the mess when they do so.