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Online bot army helped campaign HBO Max for unprecedented ‘Snyder Cut’ of superhero movie, bombshell report finds

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Early in the coronavirus pandemic, HBO Max announced it would release director Zack Snyder’s originally-intended four-hour version of Justice League, the 2017 superhero film that Snyder had left three years earlier amid creative disputes and the death of his 20-year-old daughter.

The streaming service’s announcement about the film and its eventual release was the byproduct of a massive social media push by fans, many of whom were displeased with the film’s original version. The extremely vocal online contingent had spent the last two years pressuring Warner execs to release Snyder’s version of the film, dubbed the “Snyder Cut.”

“Since I got here 14 months ago, the chant to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut has been a daily drumbeat in our offices and inboxes. Well, the fans have asked, and we are thrilled to finally deliver,” said HBO Max executive Robert Greenblatt in a statement in May 2020 announcing that Snyder’s version would be released.

Now, a new Rolling Stone report suggests the online campaign leading to the Snyder Cut’s release was amplified by bots and artificial accounts.

At least 13% of the accounts that took part in the social media conversation about the Snyder Cut were deemed fake, according to two reports commissioned by WarnerMedia and independently reviewed by Rolling Stone.

According to cyber experts interviewed by Rolling Stone, at least 3% to 5% of accounts commenting on any trending topic are typically operated by bots or artificial accounts, a number that is well below the 13% attributed to the Snyder Cut’s online army.

Citing unnamed insiders involved with the film, the report also alleges that Snyder participated in helping manipulate the social media conversation around the movie, though he denied the claim to Rolling Stone.

Beginning in late 2019, WarnerMedia’s report documents how hashtags like #ReleaseTheSnyderCut racked up hundreds of thousands of tweets daily, adding additional pressure on the company to re-release the film that had bombed both at the box office and with critics.

During the online campaign, the fanbase associated with the Snyder Cut movement became notoriously toxic by bullying executives who reportedly stood in the way of the film’s release. First, images were created showing the decapitated heads of producers and executives at WarnerMedia. Later, Snyder Cut trolls posted photoshopped images of DC Comics executives wearing Ku Klux Klan robes because they, too, were reportedly at odds with Snyder’s version.

At one point, the online vitriol was bad enough that Warner Bros.’ security division was brought in to address the threats, according to Rolling Stone’s report.

Still, the online uproar was enough for WarnerMedia and HBO Max, oblivious to the fact that some of the uproar had been promoted by bots, to greenlight the project.

“The studio never would have released my version of Justice League unless it made financial/business sense for them,” Snyder said in a statement to Rolling Stone. 

To remake the film, Warner Bros.—the studio behind Justice League and the entire roster of other superhero films based on the DC universe—spent an additional $100 million, including $73 million on the film itself and more than $13 million on marketing, according to Rolling Stone.

“That’s $73 million while people were losing their jobs at the studio for a director’s cut of a film that already lost hundreds of millions,” one insider told Rolling Stone, referring to job cuts at WarnerMedia during the pandemic and the failure of the 2017 release.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com