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5 July 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:01pm

The Little Mermaid casting row is a reminder we should stop signal boosting tiny trolls

By Rachael Krishna

When the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid was announced earlier this week, it was met with positive surprise. Fans who want to see greater diversity on screen have come to expect disappointment when it comes to casting in major Hollywood films. The casting of a black woman in a historically white role signalled an important moment in the ongoing push for greater representation.

However, the optimism was quickly dampened. Anyone who has spent time online is aware of the cycle of outrage that comes after such announcements. For years now, casting announcements which skew from tradition have almost always been met with a messy push-back; think back to all woman Ghostbusters, Jodie Whittaker announced as Dr Who, Zendaya’s rumoured as MJ in Spider-Man, and the slew of hate-filled tweets, think-pieces and videos that followed their casting. 

But with the The Little Mermaid news, it seemed like some people that supported Bailey’s casting were preempting the cycle and searching for any negative tweets they could find about the news. Quickly tweets with minimal likes, or accounts with small follower counts, were retweeted and quote-tweeted numerous times, giving large public platforms to statements that would have usually disappeared into Twitter’s echo-chamber.

But people who go looking for any adverse opinion, just so they can dunk on it for numbers, are causing problems. This isn’t a case of holding someone with public influence to account or punching up. Its only benefit is to show that you’re engaged in the cultural conversion, and to get likes. But it has negatives, too: trolls are given the attention that they crave.

This need to find wrongness then leads to fake tweets. As reported by BuzzFeed’s Brandon Wall, one account switched its appearance to look like a Little Mermaid fan account, then tweeted that they would be throwing away a copy of the film due to Bailey’s casting.

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It should have been more obvious to anyone with digital literacy that the tweet was suspicious. Iit reads like a stereotype of viral anger; the threat to destroy merchandise is now a troupe of stan twitter, the mention of race so early on in the tweet makes it feel geared for controversy. A quick scroll through the account’s photos revealed it as a fake – although it was worrying how few people were willing to spend the minimal time required to do that. 

Fake tweets, reviews, and even accounts are becoming worryingly common in pop culture. Last year a group of Lady Gaga fans used fake midwestern mom accounts to tweet suspiciously similar negative reviews of Venom, the week both that and Gaga’s A Star Is Born hit theatres. When Marvel’s Black Panther and Captain Marvel were released, both were the targets of fake negative reviews in an effort to bring their rotten tomatoes score down.

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The issue here isn’t necessarily that some people find the idea of multiculturalism in cinema repulsive, or are prepared to make lengthy arguments about how Hans Christen Anderson’s Danish roots mean that a fictional mermaid should always have white skin (although there certainly are people who have those opinions, and they often share them online). The question is why is there such a compelling need to shine a spotlight on such opinions – which in reality may be voiced by a fairly small number of people – that it starts actively fuelling misinformation.

The urge to show righteousness and be praised for it is now so common that bad actors are jumping on it and using it for their benefit. We thrive so much on quick Twitter put-downs that its fuelling fires that never should have burned; frankly why should there be a day-long Twitter fight with anonymous accounts about the casting in a children’s film? Directing your anger to the source of the misinformation by informing yourself before you tweet is a far more productive way to deal with both fake accounts and bigoted opinions. 

You can give your opinion on the news without signal boosting trolls, or by taking a minute to look at the account putting out an opinion and check its origins. At Full Fact we have numerous guides on how to best spot a range of misinformation online. Pop culture is not free of polarisation and should be approached in the same way we approach any news, with a cautious eye. We all need to be careful, after all – because what we do online matters, and our choices of who, and what, to share can have powerful repercussions. 

Rachael Krishna is a fact-checker at Full Fact, the fact-checking charity.