That Racist You’re Arguing With Might Just be a Bot
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Guest Post by Katharine Trendacosta
In early July, Disney announced that it had cast Halle Bailey to play Ariel in its live-action version of The Little Mermaid. Bailey is one of the stars of Grown-ish and one half of the singing group Chole x Hailey. She’s also going to be the first black woman to play a live-action Disney princess. The backlash against this casting was swift…supposedly.
It’s popping up again, thanks to the story about Harry Styles–formerly of One Direction–passing on the role of Prince Eric. Some people seem to have picked up the idea that the backlash to the casting of Bailey might have played a role. But both that backlash and the response to Styles passing on the part is a tiny fraction of the population.
After Disney announced Bailey’s casting on July 3, there were posts on social media that appeared to express anger about the casting, generally falling into the usual racist tropes about ruined childhoods and how this isn’t “true”to the original. There were also the fun classic “How is this different from casting Tiana (Disney’s ONLY animated black princess) with a white person?” (Hell is very much looking at the Twitter hashtag #notmyariel.)
The backlash got some media attention, including a piece in the Washington Post titled “The white nostalgia fueling the ‘Little Mermaid’ backlash.” This was followed by responses from Freeform, the Disney-owned channel that airs Grown-ish, and Bailey herself.
But there is… good…news. Sort of. Well, at least news that looks good in a certain light.
And that news is that however toxic this stuff is, it doesn’t appear to represent a majority of people. It might represent people at all.
Looking into the backlash reveals a number of classic bot and troll techniques fueling the outrage. This twitter thread pointed out that one of the accounts tweeting about Bailey’s casting was sending the same tweet at regular intervals, spamming any other mention of the movie and the casting. Automatically sending the same tweet over and over is a pretty good sign that an account is a bot and not a real human. Buzzfeed’s Brandon Wall did some digging into a viral tweet about what white girls “deserved” from this movie, and he found that a) the avatar picture was stolen from Instagram b) the image of her “half black best friend” shows up all over Pinterest and c) that the picture of “her” holding a copy of the movie was still taken from a YouTube unboxing video.
A lot of the tweets I linked to above come from brand new accounts, accounts with long strings of numbers in the username, and/or accounts with either a stolen avatar or no picture whatsoever. Rarely do these things signal that tweets are coming from a place of authenticity.
On another social media platform, there was another tactic to inflate the size of the backlash. On Facebook, there appeared to be a group called “Christian’s Against the Little Mermaid” (yes, the typo was there in the name) with over 33,000 members. Hemant Mehta, at the Friendly Atheist, did the work of digging into the group’s history, finding that it wasn’t founded in response to the casting announcement on July 3, 2019–which would mean it had gotten that many members in days–but was originally titled “Love, compassion, & understanding” in July of 2017. And that makes the number of members make more sense. For more than a year, it kept that innocuous title. Then, in early 2019, it became “Boycott Super Bowl LIII” and, a few months later, another name change to “Muhammad Ali Memorial.”
A lot of people who joined that group in 2017 probably weren’t aware of where it ended up, but their presence in a group that a troll controls allows the troll to create the impression of a lot of support where it doesn’t really exist.
Oh, and did I mention that the creator of the group is named “Wade Wilson?” That’s the name of Deadpool, the Marvel comics character.
For the Extremely Online, spotting the signs of a troll campaign isn’t too hard. These signs jump out at you after a while, especially when the same tactics are used over and over. For people who have a healthier relationship with the internet, it’s harder. Especially in this case, which combines the very real phenomena of racism and people getting very angry about pop culture.
Ashlie D. Stevens at Salon took this same information and coupled it with research that showed that the majority of social media posts about the backlash to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens were people angry at the trolls. In this case, Stevens pointed out, it was Freeform’s defense of Bailey that was actually picked up the most.
That’s the good news. It’s not a huge number of people who are so racist they can’t let The Little Mermaid pass without comment. Generally, social media is actually filled with people who think those people are wrong. But we could all save time and energy by recognizing and ignoring trolls.
Katharine’s day job is as the Manager of Policy and Activism for EFF and her night job is writing things like this.