We’ve all witnessed internet trolls at work since the early days of dial-up. But in just the past month, we’ve seen three controversial incidents – the ArenaNet firings, director James Gunn’s sacking from the Guardians Of The Galaxy films, and the unearthing of an old Dan Harmon paedophilia sketch leading him to quit Twitter – that highlight a worrying pattern of awful online behaviour and woeful incompetency at combating internet trolls from clueless companies.
Each incident followed a similar pattern. Disgruntled fans and internet trolls all kicked up a stink over something, and this anger quickly snowballed into some knee-jerk firings, or at least a hasty retreat to silence.
On the surface, it appears pretty straightforward. A developer/creator said or did something unseemly, the internet pointed it out, disciplinary actions were taken, and that was that.
But dig a little deeper and what we find is a worrying paradigm shift in which entertainment companies are capitulating to apparent waves of “fan outrage”, much of which is done from a place of bad faith rather than good.
This recent pattern of disturbing behaviour kicked off a few weeks ago when video game company ArenaNet sacked two of its employees – Guild Wars 2 narrative designer Jessica Price and writer Peter Fries – for a series of tweets responding to YouTuber, Deroir, who works closely with ArenaNet.
It all began with Price writing a lengthy Twitter thread about the differences in writing characters for a single-player games and multiplayer games. Deroir chimed in and proceeded to mansplain Price’s job to her, only to be quickly called out. This triggered a slew of outrage from the Guild Wars 2 community, which quickly spread to the remnants of GamerGate (a controversial 2014 harassment campaign centring on sexism and pushing back against progressive values in gaming).
Needless to say, many ignored Price’s stance and stood up for Deroir because of a mybrid of mindboggling reasons ranging from “she’s a woman” to “we gotta stick together as gamers against these awful developers”.
Today in being a female game dev:
"Allow me–a person who does not work with you–explain to you how you do your job." https://t.co/lmK0yJWqGB
— Jessica Price (@Delafina777) July 4, 2018
Something like this normally fizzles out after a few weeks, but this time fans kept the outrage going and it eventually reached ArenaNet’s president, Mike O’Brien. He quickly fired Price and Fries (who stuck up for Price on Twitter) and tried to wave it off as “failing to “uphold [ArenaNet’s] standards of communicating with players”.
In the midst of celebrations between the Guild Wars 2 and GamerGate communities over how ArenaNet “listened” to them, a dangerous precedent was set for game developers. One Redditor posted:
“Nobody at Arenanet is safe from the hand of reddit. We’re literally running the company now, they’re in fear of the very users they seek to consort with … The moment a dev steps out of line or try to talk back to a player, guess what, they’ll know we got their hands on their throat and we can squeeze any time we like.”
Not only was O’Brien’s statement a short-sighted response that takes at face value the bad faith arguments put forward by angered trolls, some of whom may not even be gamers, but it empowers other internet trolls to come out in droves and complain to video game companies whenever they disagree with a developer.
ArenaNet essentially gave gamers the keys to the kingdom without any hint of a battle and that is a terrifying prospect for those working in the gaming industry.
It’s clear that the ArenaNet saga wasn’t about fans wanting the company to fix issues with its games. This carried undertones of a political hit job from dark corners of the internet who don’t agree with a female developer and will do anything to get their way.
The fact that the incident was latched onto by the remnants of GamerGate communities and pushed out as such speaks volumes about what the Price, Fries, and Deroir incident was really about and how poorly ArenaNet handled the whole situation.
The bad decisions from companies kept coming when Disney fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn after some Twitter users made a massive fuss over some of his old and controversial tweets.
It quickly emerged that the mastermind behind the unearthing of Gunn’s vile old tweets and his subsequent firing was a group of alt-right creeps who had a bone to pick with the director for being an avid and vocal Trump critic. That alt-right group also happens to include alt-right figurehead Mike Cernovich, who I bet must be a riot at parties.
Disney’s swift capitulation to the pressure exerted by Cernovich echoes what happened in the ArenaNet incident. Easily-angered trolls with an agenda beyond simple criticism make a heap of noise, company reacts without thinking and fires the target of the fans’ ire, the opinion of trolls become legitimised and they become empowered to do it more often in the future.
The thinking behind Disney’s decision to cave in to the trolls and fire Gunn is baffling, and it exposes the company to the inconsistencies of its ruling. If Disney were to maintain their stance of “adhering to company values’, then precedent dictates that it must fire Donald Glover too, who has told his share of misogynistic and rape jokes in the past.
It’s clear that companies and studios need to figure out how to handle both good-faith and troll-driven campaigns over problematic past behaviour in a constructive way, and the recent Dan Harmon saga this week shows that we’ve got some way to go.
Harmon deleted his Twitter account after a controversial sketch satirising paedophilia from 2009 was unearthed by trolls on renowned internet dumpster fire 4chan and shared around like the gospel by alt-right media platforms such as Breitbart, sub-Reddit The_Donald, and of course, Mike Cernovich.
Now paedophilia is a tough topic to talk about at the best of times, let alone satirise, but context is important. The sketch – a Dexter spoof titled “Daryl” that features Harmon simulating sex on a plastic baby doll – was released on Harmon’s own boundary-pushing, comedy sketch festival platform Channel 101, which was known for being an early launching pad for acts like Tim and Eric and The Lonely Island.
If it weren’t for Channel 101, we probably wouldn’t have got the masterpiece that is “Jizz In My Pants”.
Those familiar with Harmon’s work will clearly see that “Daryl” is in line with his crude and “out there” sense of humour.
Hell, the sketch is pretty similar to the season one Rick And Morty scene in which an adult alien tries to rape 14-year-old Morty and there was a distinct lack of outrage in those quarters.
When taking into account Harmon’s history as an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, it quickly becomes clear that the unearthing of the “Daryl” sketch isn’t some crusade against politically incorrect jokes but rather another political hit job from those who disagree with Harmon and his anti-Trump stance.
Harmon himself has shown on multiple occasions that he is an emotional person prone to abusive outbursts towards both himself and occasionally others, but he is also clearly someone who is coming from a place of trying to do better. When faced with sexual harassment allegations from a former co-worker, Harmon did what everyone in Hollywood did and denied everything.
Oh wait, no he didn’t. What he did was own up to it by delivering one of the best public apologies in recent memory.
Please listen to it. It’s only seven minutes long, but it is a masterclass in How to Apologize. He’s not rationalizing or justifying or making excuses. He doesn’t just vaguely acknowledge some general wrongdoing in the past. He gives a full account.
— Megan Ganz (@meganganz) January 11, 2018
Harmon has since issued out an apology for the “Daryl” sketch, which was subsequently followed up by a stern but somewhat supportive statement from his bosses at Adult Swim. While the guy wasn’t fired (which would’ve caused riots from the rabid Rick And Morty fanbase), it’s a little troubling that no one called out the trolls who kicked off the whole mess in the first place.
Cernovich may not have scalped Harmon like he did Gunn, but the fact that an alt-right bobblehead like him (who has been accused of rape in the past and has his share of ugly “jokes” and opinions in his Twitter history) is able to force people and companies to listen to his agenda is more than a little disturbing.
Fan outrage certainly isn’t new, but the common element in each of these three incidents is how the chatter all came from a place of bad faith in each instance. In the words of Eleanor Shellstrop, it’s forked.
Companies need to recognise that there’s a big difference between responding to genuine criticism by disciplining creators like Gunn and Harmon for having questionable senses of humour, and caving in to “fan demands” led by people like Cernovich who are more interested in punishing people just because they want to see how much power they can wield.
Vile behaviour should certainly result in professional consequences proportional to the offence – something that has been demonstrated with the recent #MeToo movement. But the recent slew of alt-right attacks on liberal-aligned creatives seem to stem from a twisted, petulant logic uncoupled from ethical nuance: “if the libs can get people fired for behaviour they don’t like, then so can we”.
People like Cernovich and his followers aren’t out for any sense of justice – they’re simply on a warpath aimed at taking down those who oppose them. If companies keep giving in to these trolls, then we have truly entered a bad place.
A dangerous precedent has been set, trolls have been galvanised after these recent incidents, and companies and studios – already on edge as they try to find the right disciplinary and public-relations approaches to sexual misconduct in their ranks – are woefully ill-prepared to handle the fallout.