Social media algorithms can drive traffic for seemingly harmless film and TV reviews laced with racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice – Alastair Stewart

Black Mirror is a much-missed guide for these trying times.

Jodie Whittaker, who plays Dr Who, attends New York Comic Con (Picture: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)
Jodie Whittaker, who plays Dr Who, attends New York Comic Con (Picture: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

In one episode, Bryce Dallas-Howard plays a woman on a mental knife-edge as she desperately tries to get her 'likes' up. The entire economy and every social interaction are based on the 'like' score in her fictional world.

As the new Batman comes out, one wonders if studios, similarly desperate to please, are too deferential to fans mobilised by their own prejudice.

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Toxic fans continue to lobby hard against what they consider the ‘tokenisation’ of TV, which is a sanitised way to say anti-feminism, anti-LBQTQ+, anti-inclusivity, and non-politically correct.

There are hundreds of dedicated pop-culture social media channels that are innocent enough until you start to watch enough of them. The problem is seldom with distinct channels, but rather that prejudicial threads are often interspersed among standard reviews.

So alongside comments like Captain Picard is a feeble old man who gets shouted at repeatedly, Batman is too miserable, and the pluckiest of old childhood favourites like Luke Skywalker are now broken old sell-outs, there are others – Batwoman is a misnomer; the yet-to-be-released Lord of the Rings series is too diverse, James Bond too feminised, period dramas too black, sci-fi too trans, and cancel culture too rife.

Like a drunken middle-aged man with a few too many pints in him, the speculative discussion and reviews inevitably include the line "I am not a racist/misogynist, but…”

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As it happens, the writing in the new Doctor Who is not very good. But some appear to blame that on the female Doctor, expressing the view that Who, Bond and others should always be male. Discussions are being hijacked by some who disguise their misogyny and bile as ‘fair comment’.

User comments echo the animus, particularly on YouTube. Super chats tend to be an echo chamber for the same woes and gripes about TV shows, comics, and films that have not been released yet.

The impact of this seems trivial from the outset. But look a little closer, and these are well-mobilised review channels with hundreds of thousands of followers. Most tend to be male.

The fascinating interlocking relationship is how toxic fans mobilise and how seriously studios listen. For example, the return of Captain Picard on Amazon should have produced a wave of joie de vivre in a rebuff to the escalating trend of science-fiction torture porn.

Flash forward to the show's second season, released last week, and it is a soft reboot. In an attempt to rectify the cacophony of criticism in 2020, overt Easter eggs – surprises for those in the know, in deference to fandom – are crammed in.

This is undeniably good. But they did not magic up improvements out of thin air. It is a curious nugget that many producers, designers, and actors confess to secretly joining fan groups to hear fan reviews, comments, suggestions, and outcries.

But there is an ugly undercurrent of misogyny and racism. Worse still is that many do not seem to be aware they are spouting it.

Most of these fan channels live and die on audience donations – and pandering to prejudice and vice is the simplest, most straightforward way. No one tunes in for good news; they want the bad, they want things to be torn to shreds.

It took a double-take to think about how The Batman movie is racist in their eyes. In their warped view of the movie, only the “strong black characters” have any influence and are presented as inherently good, while all the “old white men” are portrayed as corrupt, including Bruce Wayne, whose own privilege they see as a backdoor endorsement of Black Lives Matter.

Some pop culture shows and movies getting put through the wringer for their excessive need to "tick boxes" might be understandable. Watching childhood superheroes kicked off their pedestals or reinterpreted, recast, or redefined can be challenging for some long-term fans.

When a pattern emerges that everything they like happens to prominently include characters of colour, different sexual preferences and gender identification, one wonders if they can see their own bias.

The unrelenting pressure point is the hostility to any effort to diversify traditionally white or straight roles. The loathing of Jeffrey Wright playing Commissioner Gordon seems triumphantly stupid when one reflects on his credentials as an actor.

Likewise with Zoey Kravitz as Catwoman. The hate seems centred on any departure from what the haters consider to be normal. And like the little Napoleons they are, they cannot fathom anything not made in their image.

This new fifth estate will only get louder given how enamoured we all are to pop culture these days. Everything needs a review and everyone gets a platform. It is no longer just controversial views, it is a cultural backlash, disguised as modest, humble criticism of why so and so should be white, so and so should be female and why that character can only ever be straight.

Toxic fandoms and their niche commentators/reviewers are a new force – but it is driving a stake through the enjoyment of these products. There is enough of a repetitive element of hate that has turned something as joyful as comic book movies into a very sour, very unpleasant outlet for extreme views.

Nor is it as easy to switch off as one might think. Social media algorithms make it inevitable that you encounter Trojan Horse commentary.

As someone who enjoys the build-up period to pictures, and the fun of teaser dissection and rampant speculation, it has become tragically easy to spot where the fun ends, and the prejudice kicks in.

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