The Little Mermaid, Disney’s latest live action remake of a cartoon classic, has been out for a week and is raising a question for all of us — and no, it’s not how much Awkwafina rap it takes to go deaf.
Instead, it’s one more often seen in biology. As animals have the ability to send each other all sorts of messages — brightly coloured frogs warning predators of their toxicity, loud bird calls to let a predator know they’ve been spotted — there’s the obvious question: what motivates any of them to tell each other the truth?
In evolutionary science, the argument goes, “honest” signals survive because if everyone lies, no one trusts, which means both a lot more predators are killed by eating poisonous frogs, and a lot more frogs end up getting eaten.
Now, a supposed “review bombing” campaign against The Little Mermaid‘s is challenging that in the world of entertainment, or perhaps showing that the way we judge, interpret and understand media is about to change
The bombs, in this case, are one-star reviews posted to aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, which draw not just from published reviews from critics but crowd-sourced input.
It’s not clear they’re from people who have even seen the movie, but rather, people trying to make a point — the same racist point that has followed Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid since it was announced that Halle Bailey, who is Black, would play Ariel.
‘Unusual voting activity’
Despite making an impressive $250 million in international box office, an honest accounting of audience reception seemed to be elusive. Because even as Rotten Tomatoes showed a 95 per cent audience score and IMDb a 7/10 rating, the latter tagged that number with a warning.
“Our rating mechanism has detected unusual voting activity on this title,” the page reads. “To preserve the reliability of our rating system, an alternate weighting calculation has been applied.”
Though IMDb did not respond to a request for comment as to how their scores were adjusted, the site lists its unweighted mean average of 4.6 out of 10, with 22,000 one-star votes — accounting for more than 40 per cent of all responses.
For Rotten Tomatoes, its 95 per cent fresh rating is from its “verified audience” — those who were able to prove they had actually bought a ticket to the movie. When checking for all audience responses, that number drops down to 56 per cent. Metacritic, which seemingly didn’t further tinker with its averages, shows a 2.1 out of 10 audience score.
As to why review aggregators would be against including negative reviews at all, it speaks to the reason these sites exist— and what distinguishes honest negative reviews, part of what these crowd-sourced sites are designed to capture, from review bombings.
“It is generally something that people do, not because they want to meaningfully engage or critique media, but because they feel that there is some ideological or cultural message that’s being forced upon them,” explained Claire Whitley, a PhD candidate in Screen and Media at Flinders University who has written about the trend of review bombing.
“Bad reviewing is something that’s always going to happen and should happen … but review bombing is generally ideologically driven, and it’s generally, although not always, coordinated by large groups online.”
When it comes to The Little Mermaid, Whitley said, that’s evident for a number of reasons. Compare its reviews to past similar productions and the difference jumps out: The Lion King and Aladdin were, like The Little Mermaid, criticized for being shallow remakes of the original, but had verified audience scores within ten per cent of “all audience.” And even with the lukewarm reception — including from this reviewer — the skew between extremely high and extremely low ratings “are nowhere near as stark as they are for The Little Mermaid.”
It started in video games
The opposite can, and does, happen as well: “review spamming,” or leaving overwhelmingly positive ratings to promote political messages as opposed to genuine reaction to a piece of media. That campaign has started for The Little Mermaid to a degree, but if the history of review bombing is to be trusted, it’s unlikely to end up being as large a problem for review sites and media literacy at large.
According to James Birt, an associate professor of video games at Australia’s Bond University, review bombing as a dominant and influential tactic has its roots in the video game community.
While the IMDb statement over Little Mermaid is unique, Birt says over the past two decades review bombing on video games has become such a pervasive problem it leads to such statements often: just last month gaming company Gaijin released a statement pleading with consumers to stop review bombing their game War Thunder.
A month before that, Metacritic issued a statement of their own in light of review bombing over a gay storyline in Horizon Forbidden West. There, after a litany of 0/10 reviews criticized the fact that a DLC chapter gave players the option to have one character kiss another of the same sex, Metacritic stated they will “introduce stricter moderation in the coming months.”
And after introducing new measures to identify review bombing in 2019, parent company Valve said they intervened in 44 incidents on gaming platform Steam that year — while taking a hands-off approach to review spamming.
“Games [were] a little bit of the canary in the coal mine,” Birt said. “What we are seeing with the major websites is that they’re acknowledging that misinformation is occurring. They’re acknowledging that there is a strange trend to what is happening.”
But where at least some of the strategy behind review bombing is to give users a way to fight for consumer protection (War Thunder was review bombed for making players spend actual money in-game to win) Birt said as it’s spread to cinema and TV, it’s morphed into a bullhorn for culture wars.
“When one sees a huge swath of one-star ratings, or 1/10, or 1/100 or 0, it’s not reflective of a reality,” he said. “It’s 100 per cent done to weaponize a political argument.”
Future of aggregation sites
As that has taken hold, he said, gamers have had less and less reason to trust in media aggregate sites’ tracking of “real people’s” responses — originally intended to get an honest accounting that professional critics weren’t trusted to provide.
Yolanda Machado, a digital editor with Entertainment Weekly, said the same could happen for movies and TV: fans will distrust ratings due to review bombing, and as sites struggle to weed out negative reviews detractors will argue numbers have been arbitrarily inflated.
As that happens, reviews may become ineffective enough for the pendulum to swing the other way, and honesty in reviews to return. On the other hand, she said, it could be the coming of the end for review sites in general — the deciding factor is how audiences will react.
“It really is going to be determined by who is reading these,” she said, “and whether or not they have the media literacy to see beyond the racism.”