Is ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ the latest victim of online ‘vote brigading’?

‘I Am Not Your Negro,’ a Oscar-nominated documentary film released Friday that uses the prophetic words of legendary black writer James Baldwin to illuminate racial injustices all too current, has gotten nothing but glowing reviews from critics. “[It] will make you rethink race,” the New York Times wrote.  “So relevant, it’s terrifying,” Hollywood Report said. Variety called it a “transcendent documentary.”

In these reviews, filmmaker Raoul Peck is praised for bringing Baldwin back for a new generation, in part by surfacing Baldwin’s unfinished work that links civil rights activists Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers — all gunned down before 40. Peck is also lauded for showing how prescient Baldwin was, as he layers images of today’s racial flashpoints — Travyon Martin, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter — over Baldwin’s words.

Online, though, the reviews for ‘I Am Not Your Negro’  look very different. At IMDB, the film had a 4.9 star average out of 10 from almost 900 reviewers as of Friday morning, the day of the film’s release. Many reacted negatively to the movie’s trailer and premise, though it was unclear how many could have actually seen the film. By Monday, after a weekend of more enthusiastic reviews, the average was just 5 out of 10.

“View at your own risk, it looks like they want you to hate people,” wrote an IMDB reviewer called ‘zehaas.’ “All that racial stuff in the movie happened decades and decades before anyone alive today.” Another reviewer, ‘turfseer,’ complained: “One wonders if Baldwin was truly committed to economic equality or simply enjoyed getting a rise out of his audience.”

According to IMDB’s demographic breakdown, most of the negative reviews of the film came from men over the age of 18. IMDB does not break down its demographics by race or location.

On Metacritic, the film is being similarly voted down, with a 96 rating out of 100 among critics, and a 3.6 rating out of 10 among users. And the comments there were similar to IMDB, with variations of “totally racist film” and “more race baiting political propaganda.”

On YouTube, where the film’s official trailer is posted, hundreds of commenters also swarmed:  “Another white guilt film.” “JUST what we need.” “Demagoguery.”  To these, a commenter called “antonhbp” responded: “Just the white people’s reactions in this comment section is proof enough that this documentary is needed.”

Here at the NewsHour, we’re no strangers to the comment section, a place for healthy conversation but also where people come to troll. And it’s not out of the ordinary for film critics and everyday movie-goers to diverge in opinion on a film’s worthiness. But in the case of ‘I Am Not Your Negro,’ where so many reviews rolled in before the film had actually been seen, it’s clear something else is going on.

What to make of this? One answer might lie in what’s called “vote brigading,” a practice Wired describes as “the practice of rallying multiple online users to knock down an entity’s score” — often before the film is even released. In August, Wired reported that online voters had started to regularly do this to independent films, and especially controversial ones.

There’s also some indication that vote brigades target movies about race: In July 2016, voters spammed ‘Ghostbusters’ as online trolls attacked the film’s black star Leslie Jones, and a few months later the same happened to Nate Parker’s slavery drama ‘Birth of a Nation’ — though both of these films were also critiqued for other reasons.

Vote brigading also made an appearance in the 2016 presidential campaign; after the first presidential debate, Daily Dot reported that Trump supporters mobilized on Reddit to flood online polls and downvote Hillary Clinton’s performance, while upvoting President Donald Trump’s.

Austin Powell, managing editor of Daily Dot, said vote brigading of people, products and even films like “I Am Not Your Negro” is a practice that has gained momentum with the rise of online peer reviews. But he also said people have been using vote brigading as a call-to-action for political or personal purposes for years.

“Telling someone to preemptively tank a film’s reviews doesn’t seem that far removed from Dan Savage’s Santorum Google bomb in 2003 or 4chan making the Swastika trend on Google in 2008 or Kim Jong-un Time‘s Person of the Year in 2011,” Powell said. “It’s all about overwhelming and manipulating rather rudimentary online systems to influence or disrupt public perception.”

These efforts, Powell said, can be coordinated and take off from just a single tweet or post on 4Chan or Reddit, two online internet communities with active and sometimes potent reader bases. But determining where the call to action originates can also be a challenge. On a subreddit for movies, one user claimed the negative comments on the ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ official trailer was likely the result of a “Reddit brigade.” On YouTube, a commenter noted that the trailer had been linked by the fringe subreddit /r/altright — impossible to prove, as that subreddit has now been banned from Reddit.

“Places like Reddit and 4chan and alt-right circles, they are aggressively masculine, they are aggressively nationalistic, so anything that doesn’t align with that viewpoint could be linked there [for brigading],” Powell said. And as the number of these kinds of online places proliferate, he said, people can more “discreetly make these calls to action without being easily traced.”  

A request for comment on vote brigading from Reddit was not returned. Metacritic also declined to comment, and a request for comment from IMDB was not answered. But IMDB told Wired last year that it was “aware that there are people who vote for the sole purpose of trying to lower the rating for a film.”

IMDB said, however, that people could also upvote a film unfairly, and that there were certain safeguards in place to try to stop vote brigading from happening.

Overall, in the online reviews and comments for ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ — yes, almost all of which we read — two narratives emerged. One, that the film was divisive, race-baiting, and put forward an “us vs. them” mentality. (There were hundreds of these kinds of comments.) Two, that we should learn from history, not ignore it, and that good art often serves that function. (There was far less of this, but these comments more likely to have a person’s photo and actual profile attached.) The irony, of course, is that Baldwin himself often examined in his work how people responded when certain racial realities were raised.  

Cue the first line of the film’s trailer, from a 1968 Baldwin interview with talk show host Dick Cavett. “If any white man in the world says, ‘give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,”  Baldwin says. “When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this … ”

In an interview with NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown, Peck talked about how scary it was to see the racial echoes of what Baldwin warned of in the present.

“It was scary, because 10 years ago when I started to work on this project, it was because I already felt that something was wrong,” Peck said. “[When] we starting seeing those images of killings of boys, black boys and black young girls … it made the film more urgent for us.”

Watch that full interview with Peck in the player below.