The wildest trilogy the world has never heard of isn’t one that was released on film—it’s in film journalism.
On July 18, hours before Zack Snyder’s Justice League’s digital release, Rolling Stone published an article with an explosive headline: “Fake Accounts fueled the Snyder Cut Army.” The story, written by film journalist Tatiana Siegel, seems to complete an unofficial trinity that began with Lila Shapiro’s profile on Joss Whedon published in New York magazine and Umberto Gonzalez’s “direct sequel” at The Wrap.
Digitally, each of these three features is behind a paywall—with The Wrap having syndicated Gonzalez’s story to Yahoo!—but that’s not the only link that holds them together. These stories have something to do with Zack Snyder and the tumultuous making of Justice League, the sequel to the commercially successful but divisively reviewed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
While they’re not directly linked—and this writer won’t conspiratorially insinuate as such—Siegel’s feature somehow both directly and indirectly references Shapiro’s and Gonzalez’s work, respectively. Much like the intertextuality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, her piece boasts flawless continuity with the other two.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Tatiana Siegel is a writer and reporter who has worked under Penske Media Corp’s various publications for almost two decades. Most of her work under PMC’s umbrella was devoted to The Hollywood Reporter, a weekly film and TV trade mag. Except, last December, she decided to step down from her position as executive editor. The twist? According to reporter Aaron Gell, writing for Los Angeles Magazine, insiders claimed her resignation left PMC’s eponymous founder Jay Penske “livid.” This marked the beginning of what can only be defined as a tug of (trade) war between PMC and her employers-to-be at The Ankler, led by ex-THR alum Janice Min.
PMC probably decided their best bet at keeping their star employee was to assign Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister to write a story announcing Min ’lost’ her first hire, with Siegel moving internally to Rolling Stone instead. Wagmeister’s piece didn’t shy away from throwing shade at the Ankler co-founder, stating she “[…] led THR into revived visibility but big financial losses for the glossy magazine.”
Min, who shot back at Rolling Stone’s editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman on Twitter, claimed, “This is insanity.” A few back-and-forths later, Siegel has now managed to hold the dual position of Senior Writer at the PMC-owned mag and Editor-at-large for The Ankler. You’d think it seems like it’s just another Tuesday when hiring prominent names from within the industry. Gell had other theories. His sources in PMC believed Siegel was “[…] motivated by a tense relationship with [a legendary journalistic giant killer and] THR stablemate Kim Masters.”
According to insiders Gell got in touch with, a possible reason for tension between the two could have been ”[…] due to differing takes on actor Ray Fisher’s battle with Joss Whedon and Warner Bros.” (Interestingly, only three years prior, the two jointly worked on an investigative report on THR surrounding the sexual impropriety of Warner Bros. Entertainment’s former chairman and CEO, Kevin Tsujihara).
Enter Siegel’s Rolling Stone story.
THE TENETS OF NARRATIVE ETHICS
To explore the idea of good-faith or bad-faith framing, we need to discuss finding a propagandist lexicon in journalism using rhetorical analysis. Rhetorical what-now? Simply put, rhetorical analysis is the act of trying to break down a piece of writing to find the meaning behind its persuasion. Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel’s A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First Year Writing has a valid reason to back this exercise up. It states, “In the 21st century’s abundance of information, it can sometimes be difficult to discern [manipulation from rhetorical strategy].”
Before we understand how best to separate the wheat from the chaff, we must take a short diversion. When it comes to narratives—journalism or otherwise—you need to get the readers hooked on your story. And most good stories, according to veteran film journalist and journalism professor Jacqui Banaszynski, rely on a crucial element: “[the] journey.” Focusing on journalism, she adds, “the reporters who do that well, I think, understand how to follow something through a journey. And they usually do that through scenes, so the story takes me somewhere.”
If narrative journalism won by stories alone, Stephen Glass would remain a voice to reckon with from his storytelling alone. Instead, his career became a fascinating character study for a critically acclaimed feature by writer-director Billy Ray in 2003.
This is why we have narrative ethics. In the book Introduction to Narrative Journalism: Real Stories, Artfully Told, its author Benjamin Wielechowski broke down its ethics through four pillars: obligations to the story subject(s), the profession, the readers, and most of all, to the truth. Wielechowski stresses that while writers must “be mindful of the four obligations,” their work requires balancing them with two of the “most valuable” tools in ethics: “honesty and transparency.”
Director Zack Snyder’s public persona—as exaggerated by film journalists, subsections of comic-book acolytes, and media analysts on YouTube—is vital to keep in mind for two reasons. It helps contextually analyze the framing of Siegel’s story and gives us pause on its possible after-effects. When your narrative frame is sullied, the lens that sits ahead is bound to fall and shatter. Any information passed through that shattered glass may not always be reported in good faith.
The detractive discourse against the director is both vast and varied:
THE FRAT-BRO: Pajiba writer Kayleigh Donaldson, who wrote on the DC fandom’s toxicity in 2018, has stoked a generic frat-bro image against the Watchmen director. In 2015, a ScreenCrush tweet shared its own news report (?) of Snyder having “[…] harsh words for Marvel [and] Ant-Man.” Quoting said tweet, Donaldson added, “Zack Snyder takes time from wanking off to his Frank Miller fanfic to lecture Marvel on something.” In another one of her tweets jabbing at—what I can only gather is—Snyder himself, she wrote, “#SupportDCFilms or Zack Snyder will break all the windows in your house.”
Of Donaldson’s now unavailable tweets, an infamous one around seven years ago has her wondering if the director “[…] can get through anything without destroying something and/or furiously masturbating?”
THE OBJECTIVIST: Devin Faraci, then editor-in-chief of Alamo Drafthouse’s now-defunct film blog Birth/Movies/Death, wrote on Snyder’s plans to adapt author and philosopher Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. The basis of the article? Siegel’s 2016 Hollywood Reporter interview of Snyder (yep, the same interview with that question) where the director described the book as a “[…] thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something.”
The article—which the website called a news report—is structured like more of an op-ed, with Faraci waxing lyrical on the ambiguity of Snyder’s politics. According to him, however, “[…] knowing that [the director] loves Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a lot of things snap into place.” The article labeled him an objectivist who believes in radical self-interest. Man of Steel was also thrown into the mix because, of course. Faraci called the film’s interpretation of Superman “[…] a superhero who only becomes one when it’s in his own self-interest (i.e., the planet’s about to get destroyed). Otherwise, he’s happy keeping his powers to himself, seeing no need to use them to help others.”
Both the article and Siegel’s interview were published online approximately ten days before the global release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Two years later, writer Donnia Harrington interviewed the director for the film website CinemaDebate (previously ComicBookDebate). Discussing the status of his Fountainhead adaptation, he said the project was on hold because “[…] it’s a really touchy subject right now.” Admitting the project was still essential to him, he added that while much of the world considered the book hardcore right-wing propaganda, he thought otherwise. “I just think the story is super fun and crazy and melodramatic about architecture and sex.”
Between the CinemaDebate interview and the Birth/Movies/Death “news report,” it isn’t hard to deduce which one spread like wildfire. The framing of Faraci’s article has outlived his exit from the role of editor-in-chief of the blog after being accused of sexual assault. He now contributes behind a paywall via his Patreon creator account.
THE “LEX LUTHOR WREAKING HAVOC”: The lexicon of adjectives surrounding Snyder is vast, ranging from “woman-hating” to “fascist.” (Shapiro, in her profile of Whedon, managed to sneak a fast one in. She opined his visual style “combined the artificiality of a video game with the fascist aesthetic of a Leni Riefenstahl production.) However, you wouldn’t have expected “Lex Luthor wreaking havoc” in your Let’s-Be-Snide-To-Snyder bingo card. Siegel’s story for Rolling Stone gives its readers just that. For what it’s worth, the writer’s ‘source’ provided the quote where the director is compared to DC’s fictional nemesis of Superman.
Say what now?
Siegel’s story attempts to legitimize a theory: Snyder “was working to manipulate the [#ReleaseTheSnyderCut] campaign.” She spoke with “[…] more than 20 people involved with both the original Justice League and [the Snyder] cut.” According to her findings, most of them “believe” the director was responsible.
(In unrelated news, the writer of this story believes in the Force, thereby establishing a theory that he’s “like a Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star.”)
Whedon implied it’s what he believes, too, according to his conversations with Shapiro. “I don’t know who started it,” he told her. “I just know in whose name it was done.” Specifically, the quote was about a theory by Whedon’s fans that the writer outlined as a foundation: “What if Fisher had been doing Snyder’s bidding?”
Shapiro, to her credit, noted that the theory was primarily speculative and sans proof. However, it wasn’t long before she dove back conspiratorially that the director “[…] tricked Fisher into thinking Whedon was racist.” The two could have “manufactured” a controversy that would paint the Watchmen director as a progressive ally “[…] while diverting attention from the fact that their early cut was a disaster.”
Siegel’s piece excels at The Journey. She opens with a jilted artist, “[…] becoming increasingly agitated,” establishing director Zack Snyder as an angry, broken man on the warpath against Geoff Johns and Jon Berg. The core conflict? According to “multiple sources familiar with the matter,” he finally ’snapped’ and told an executive in the post-production department, “Now I will destroy them on social media.” With that quote, the readers are immediately hooked on the story.
Whether or not Siegel is honest in the article can only be up for debate and interpretation. Its biggest flaw, however—one that significantly brings its as-yet-unclear honesty to further doubt—is transparency. So how do we work around the lack of information around said transparency? How can we make an active attempt to find out whether a writer’s communication comes from good or bad faith? The answer to those questions lies squarely in rhetorical analysis.
Gagich and Zickel’s book is more than happy to elaborate. According to the writers, “Rhetorically focusing on the text might include observing what the author says, how he or she arranges information, the types of information that he or she includes.” The act can also include “[…] observing and researching the context, the author’s identity, values and biases, the audience’s interests and needs, the medium in which the author composes, the purpose for creating the text, and more.”
With our basic hold on the concept now in the bag, it’s time to break down who the author behind that Rolling Stone piece is from the information we have on hand: her work.
In 2017, Siegel shared a news report she wrote on Twitter. The news? Director Joss Whedon was hired to work on Batgirl that year. The piece was shared by her twice—the first time round with its original headline. The second time round, though, she swaps that for something… interesting. Her tweet reads: “With [Joss Whedon] moving to DC, perhaps this is a signal from the bat cave that WB is getting its shit together.” Could this be a dig at Snyder’s work? It’s impossible to say, but it’s not the only time she’s thrown shade at the director, and it continues to get worse.
On July 7, 2019, Siegel shared a Daily Beast article containing breaking news of Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest for sex trafficking minors. Attached to the link is a Tweet that, to the unknown, doesn’t say much. But her choices in that tweet make you question where she’s coming from. The tweet stated: “[It’s] worth noting that Jeffrey Epstein continued to move freely in Hollywood circles in recent years. I saw him at the Batman v Superman premiere in [New York]. He was even at the Gotham Awards post-#MeToo.” This one, somehow, checks out on the plausible deniability scale too.
If there ever was a flag that was the reddest shade that the color red could get, it’s her interview with Snyder and his wife, Deborah. In the interview, published in The Hollywood Reporter in March 2016, she framed one of her questions in a way that would give most people pause: “Directors used to sleep with their leading lady. Now it seems like every successful director is married to their producing partner. Thoughts on this shift?”
The above examples aren’t necessarily hardcoded evidence against her framing of anything related to Snyder and/or his movies within her text. However, they provide some speculative context cues to what she may have wanted her stories to do.
ACT ONE A VERY RAINY COPYPASTA
It is February 2016. Superhero cinema is beginning to heat up. Deadpool makes waves at the box office, and the behemoth marketing for Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to be chugging along at a consistent pace. Of course, the Bird App has to step in to ruin the fun—and this time, it’s via copypasta. It reads, ”The Batman v Superman movie will be a two-hour tracking shot of every single DC character crying in the rain.”
What’s a copypasta? Basically, it’s a block of text that’s been copied and pasted by multiple users across a platform. According to Techopedia, copypastas can ”originate from a viral tweet or post, an inappropriate or weird forum response, or an otherwise comic or amusing block of text.” The website elaborates that when this text gains an amount of memetic popularity, it continues to spread, eventually ”evolving into something different.”
In a Reddit post, user u/LegendsVII speculated this could either be ”low-rent trolling” or an orchestration behind the scenes ”by a company or a group of people.” They claimed they spoke to filmmaker and Forbes contributor Mark Hughes, who told them that the attacks resulted from large-scale trolling. We reached out to Hughes, who couldn’t recall conversing with the Redditor. He did, however, have similar beliefs.
Prefacing his speculation by calling the event ”typical fan nonsense,” Hughes gave some context to the fan wars: ”Snyder, unfortunately, had become a controversial figure among comic-book fans with Watchmen, which I loved, and Man of Steel, which I liked a lot, flaws and all.” He added that while the “memes made it faster and easier to participate, and sock puppets made it worse,” he felt the problem may not have been the fans or trolls themselves.
”I actually felt the online fan wars weren’t as relevant as the way certain segments of the entertainment press egged them on and engaged in a lot of bandwagon negativity. However, that comes down to what the fans are most likely to read and share among themselves, which—unfortunately—tends to be negative, and tends to incite anger, instead of otherwise.”
ACT TWO THE WHOLE WORLD BECOMES A JUSTICE LEAGUE
It is November 17, 2019. Fans of the Snyder Cut are ready for a significant organized event publicly announced by the fandom’s Twitter hub account @RTSnyderCut. The stage has already been set, with Cyborg actor Ray Fisher and Aquaman actor Jason Momoa championing the hashtag around a week before D-Day. Snyder, for his part, has been gradually ramping up curiosity through VERO—a social media app Snyder’s made his daily driver of communication by now.
The goal? A minimum of 214,000 tweets with the hashtag that has of late become the fandom’s rallying cry—#ReleaseTheSnyderCut. But why the specific number? Many believed that the Snyder Cut had a runtime of 214 minutes (a whopping 3 hours and 34 minutes in length). In a call-to-action graphic posted 24 hours prior, the hub admins explained why the goal was achievable: “If all 12,000 members [of the fandom] make at least 17 tweets each, we’ll achieve our goal.”
“The buildup to it was insane,” a fan told us. But none of them expected the rest of the league (kind of) to come together, too. Actors Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot joined the campaign to tweet with the hashtag, and Zack Snyder quote tweeted both those tweets. “[Affleck and Gadot’s tweets] brought global awareness to the trend, and that helped the number reach close to 800,000,” another fan told us.
They weren’t wrong. By the end of the event, @RTSnyderCut revealed some impressive stats, with numbers reaching a total of 771,000 tweets that had the hashtag and a potential reach of over 800 billion views. “Fans, created the first spike,” the admins wrote, “and [Ray Fisher, Affleck, and Gadot] gave us the second.”
(Did Snyder give the fans a much-needed boost to help bring the conversation to the mainstream? Maybe, but his involvement wouldn’t have made much of a difference had a ragtag team of fans not brought a global fandom together. That people worldwide could unite, organize and collectively voice their concerns as loudly as possible feels unreal. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Truth, as they say, can often be stranger than fiction).
Nine days after the event, Variety published a report by Brent Lang and Justin Kroll that had some Snyder Cut news. The writers spoke to a “knowledgeable insider” about the chances of the director’s original vision. They claimed it was a “pipe dream,” adding, “There’s no way it’s ever happening.”
ACT THREE “WE WON’T BE DEVELOPING AYER’S CUT”
It is March 22, 2021. Four days after the HBO Max premiere of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, with momentum at an all-time high and positive engagement, an interview of then-CEO of WarnerMedia Studios Ann Sarnoff by Lang is published in Variety.
The sentence that opens Lang’s story aims pointedly to nip something in the bud. Is it renewed enthusiasm? Is it the curiosity for the future of Snyder’s DC live-action film arc? That’s on the reader to decide. It reads: “Ann Sarnoff says that the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League will complete the director’s superhero trilogy, reinforcing the studio’s desire to move past the social-media campaign to hand back control of the DC film universe to the filmmaker.”
“With that comes the completion of his trilogy,” Sarnoff told Lang. “We’re happy we’ve done this, but we’re very excited about the plans we have for all the multidimensional DC characters being developed right now.”
The message is loud and clear. The SnyderVerse is dead, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. Please stop bothering us.
Speaking on Fisher’s claims of workplace abuse and Hamada’s enabling behavior, Sarnoff added, “I’m fully supportive of Toby [Emmerich] and Walter and their visions. I truly believe they are great executives. Walter happens to be a person of color, so he knows what that feels like.” She wanted to make it clear the two were “[…] part of the green lighting that allowed Zack’s vision to come to life, which includes sharing the full story about Ray’s character.”
That may be true. However, the executive alleged to have been the Snyder Cut’s most prominent champion—former WarnerMedia chairman Robert Greenblatt—along with former HBO Max content chief Kevin Reilly, right around the time Hulu alum Jason Kilar entered the picture. Sarnoff would later replace Greenblatt, with Casey Bloys taking over for Reilly.
Fans expressed their displeasure at being dismissed thoroughly, but it wasn’t just the Sny-hards. Casual fans, the general audience, and the hardcore fans all came together to shun the inappropriate timing of that interview from the perspective of PR and brand management. The impromptu trending event helped the hashtag #RestoreTheSnyderVerse become a force of nature with around 1.5 million tweets.
While he was acutely aware of the sudden displeasure that snowballed into a massive trend, Snyder’s involvement with this specific event seems non-existent at best and minuscule at worst. He may not have weaponized the movement. The fans, however, certainly weaponized their displeasure at being generalized for wanting to engage with a director’s films. (Conversely, one could argue Sarnoff weaponized her words to shake up and shut down the buzz, but perhaps the world isn’t ready for that conversation yet). One can only wonder if any other studio has similarly contributed to an aggressive deflation of online engagement less than a week after the release of their latest IP.
ACT FOUR “INVERSION”
It is July 18, 2022. The moment of Tatiana Siegel’s Rolling Stone article has arrived, and her text interprets things differently.
“Many,” she wrote, referring to the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, “came to question what appeared to be suspect activity.” In her words, the hashtag “[…] saturated social media beginning in late 2019.” While her attempt was to throw the #RestoreTheSnyderVerse hashtag trending at approximately 1.5 million tweets under the bus, the text—whether intentionally or otherwise—also ended up sowing a seed of doubt at the 2019 trend.
An unnamed ’digital marketing executive,’ musing on the drop from 1.5 million to “[…] 40,000 within days,” told Siegel, “You don’t see a drop like that organically.” She claims the executive added that it appeared to be “[…] a classic example of ’weaponizing a movement.’” It is unclear whether the executive in question used the phrase “weaponizing a movement” in connection with their previous quote. Still, the context behind both trending events is either omitted or sidestepped.
Siegel wrote that Rolling Stone obtained two reports commissioned by WarnerMedia, revealing that “at least 13% of the accounts that took part in the Snyder Cut conversation were deemed fake.” She added that the percentage of fake followers was “well above the three to five percent” recommended by cyber experts. While just about acknowledging it indirectly, she chose to omit that, conversely, at least 87% of them could be real. Her angle? Snyder’s “scores of authentic, flesh-and-blood fans” were amplified by a disproportionate number of bogus accounts.
According to the story, data analysis firms Q5id and Graphika echoed the report’s findings after doing their research. However, Avneesh Chandra, a data analyst working for Graphika, reportedly didn’t think it made much of a difference. “Many of those accounts are spammy and failed to cut through the noise,” he told Rolling Stone.
Citing the Academy’s popular choice awards, he added, “A bulk of this activity was made up of real and passionate users taking direction from influential figures in the Snyder community.” (This partially backs the Academy’s stance and softly debunks The Wrap’s subtle insinuation that both awards were won using bots.) Who could those influential figures be? A simple deduction would probably lead you to an approximate answer: groups like the admins behind @RTSnyderCut could perhaps be one of them. Fiona Zheng—one of the movement’s earliest champions, widely known as one of the guests the director interacted with in DC FanDome 2020’s Snyder Cut panel—is another possibility.
On July 20, 2022, Bloomberg reporter Lucas Shaw would share Siegel’s story on Twitter, calling it “[…] absolutely bonkers, […] less for the bots but more for the studio infighting around it.” For whatever it’s worth, not too long after, Lang would respond: “The bots are pretty crazy too, as is the director’s threatening behavior.”
As of writing this, there hasn’t been any formal investigation assigned by any publication on the 2016 copypasta.
EYES WIDE SHUT
HOMOPHOBIA, HEADS AND HOSTILITY
Mid-January, 2021. Two months before the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, an artist on Instagram, who went by the handle @daniras_ilust at the time, had just uploaded an image of Wonder Woman holding out the decapitated heads of Johns, Emmerich, and Hamada. According to Siegel’s story, “SnyderVerse devotees,” tagged social media accounts of the trio’s kids on it. This may or may not have been the turning point that, according to the piece, pushed Sarnoff to decry the fandom and WarnerMedia to commission those reports. The results—it could be interpreted via the broad framing of the parts of this story covering it—were that the real accounts were manipulated by the fake ones.
The artist, who has at some point renamed their Instagram handle to @daniras_art, wasn’t as much a Snyder acolyte—it turns out. Writing in Spanish, the artist posted the controversial image with a short caption: “The polemic at Warner and DC is insane. I’m not taking any sides here, but I hope this art finds love with Ray Fisher fans.” In response to the art, “@moli.joseantonio” said, “Hi, I’m a part of the #RestoreTheSnyderVerse movement and support [Fisher]. However, this illustration makes us all look awful and doesn’t represent what we stand for.” @daniras_ilust pushed back by saying, “I do not give a damn about your movement, nor am I married to anything else. I drew this for myself.”
Does this prove anything? Probably just that he’s a provocateur. However, digging further and chasing some leads, this writer landed on more interactions that led the Latine subsection of the fandom on high alert. Another screenshot has them responding to @freakvision1, in which @daniras_art said: “Zack Snyder ruined Superman. These gay [pejoratively used] Snyder fans think they’ve won by getting the Snyder cut, but it doesn’t matter because it’ll still be a load of sh*t.” A bunch of screenshots was compiled into a thread by the Twitter fan account @CinemaSnyder, rounding out their attempt to clarify the presence of the image with the words, “Reactions like this are disproportionate, unfair, and vindictive.” The account added that it was essential to fight against the misuse of this image, which “makes an entire fandom look bad.”
These conversations have since been impossible to find on a cursory search. The responses made by @daniras_art may have, in the weeks after, been deleted and/or reported enough to be taken down. Siegel’s story does not cover this, and three possible justifications exist. Perhaps she didn’t find these tweets. Maybe she couldn’t back them the way she could support the credibility of her numerous anonymous insider sources. Or—in the worst-case scenario—she may have come across the thread and chosen actively not to report it.
As of now, we can only interpret her motivations using the information we have.
TWO SIDES/SAME COIN
On August 23, Moroccan-Belgian director duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah broke their silence on the abrupt cancelation of their film Batgirl. (The news broke on August 2 across multiple film trade outlets. It was an announcement that preceded a massive change in Warner Bros Discovery’s future slate, ranging from television to film across various studios under the corp’s umbrella).
In a conversation with Skript, the duo stated they attempted to have their editor, Martin Walsh, “pack up that shit, you know, backup/copy the movie.” Bilall added that their effort was unsuccessful. “I went on the server, and everything was blocked.” News spread across Twitter and multiple entertainment portals, with pop culture microblogger CultureCrave among those misquoting their words, possibly due to a poor translation. In unsurprising Twitter fashion, responses ranged from enraged and shocked to funny, with some calling it “horrific” and others a “waking nightmare.”
Siegel’s shared a similar story in her Rolling Stone. Only this time, the primary characters were Zack Snyder and his editor, and the film was Zack Snyder’s Justice League. According to her sources, Snyder sent one of his editors to retrieve his hard drives containing materials related to the film. When the director was asked to return them, “he balked.” The story added that security was notified, but no action was taken. Is there a grain of truth to it? Maybe. The probable reality, however, is framed as a parenthetical side-note. When Snyder was asked about the film, he stated he was “contractually entitled to files connected with the film” and that they were for his “personal use.” He added that he was not asked to return them at the time.
One would wonder if both Siegel and Rolling Stone used Snyder’s pushback against their claims within parentheses to claim plausible deniability. A Vanity Fair feature on February 2021 penned by Anthony Breznican confirms that Snyder didn’t waver from his narrative. According to the story, when the director left Warner Bros., he grabbed his laptop and hard drive containing the film’s original version. It was black-and-white and devoid of visual effects, music, and mastering. The text also confirmed he’d be using it to show “our friends or whatever” as a memento.
Save for a few exceptions, the use of brackets forms a curious pattern. It’s almost as if to distance the message outside them from the perspective inside them. When the director denied claims by “sources” that two additional shoots for Zack Snyder’s Justice League flouted both CoVID and union protocols, it’s in brackets. His quote—“The studio never would have released my version of Justice League unless it made financial/business sense for them.”—made it inside brackets. Meanwhile, the text outside of them had a source lamenting a US$73m loss thanks to completing the 4-hour director’s cut of the film “while people were losing their jobs.”
The usage of brackets as a framing device may occasionally vary within the article. However, their faithful use across text where the director pushes back on being either implicitly or explicitly accused by “sources” and “insiders” of doing various things seems… a bit suspect.
Is Siegel’s story all wrong? Or is it entirely factual? Perhaps the answer isn’t all black-and-white. An article in the cultural research, analysis and education portal The Consilience Project (to be abbreviated as TCP as of now for brevity) tries to make sense of the devices used. According to the report How to Mislead with Facts, published on the website on January 30 this year, fact-checking might be necessary, but “[…] it’s often not enough to provide the whole picture.” The editorial further states, “Verified facts are collected as ammunition for culture war, rather than for the sake of gaining a comprehensive understanding.” Keeping this in context, one thing is clear, whether or not Rolling Stone’s piece consists of uncompromising truth. Readers have little more to form a belief than the word of the author and the publication.
This raises two problems: Siegel’s reporting on practically anything surrounding director Zack Snyder and the Snyder Cut could be seen as suspect, if not outright biased. As for the publication, it’s always loved controversy, even if it comes at the cost of possible basic research. More recently, they’re known for picking up and reporting a chronologically problematic story surrounding the pandemic, Ivermectin, and hospital beds. The resulting pushback to the claims made led to editor Alex Shephard for The New Republic remarking, “This should be a stark reminder of the value of due diligence and checking sources. At the very least, make a phone call.”
To their credit, it’s not like those “phone calls” weren’t made. Snyder and Fisher were contacted for comment; clearly, the former had an answer for almost all questions that needed to be asked. (As for Fisher, hold that thought.) The problem here lies not in the fact that the answers were present in the article; it’s how it was framed.
In TCP’s January 30 editorial, there are three primary ways of misleading using facts—stripping off and creating new context, cherry-picking and limiting focus, and reinterpreting and pre-framing meaning. Each of these three ways is reflected in one way or another within Siegel’s story. TCP has an unambiguous identifier for when authors strip a fact of its context to recontextualize it. According to their editorial, this happens if you’re informed that “something is a fact […] without being told the methods used, measurement errors, [or] limitations of observations.” It adds that a lack of understanding of the comprehensiveness behind the findings could make the fact seem “important and impressive. Once the fact is understood in the context of possible measurement errors and inherent limitations of the methodology, it appears tentative and potentially questionable.”
This pointer perfectly aligns with one of the central tenets of rhetorical reading: to understand if we’ve been given a set of images or other infographics to support an author’s claims. Siegel’s story provides no such thing. This leads to the second way we can be misled with facts: cherry-picking and limiting focus. According to TCP, this happens when you’re told, “A great number of studies show the same thing, while never hearing about the studies done on relevant alternative hypotheses.” It reiterates that without proper knowledge, it will look like the consensus is “overwhelming” and unanimous, even if there could be more dissent and open ends.
With a light exception of Chandra, Siegel’s story implies all agencies Rolling Stone hired had unanimous stats for “bots” influencing the Snyder Cut movement. Q5id CIO and CTO Becky Wanta told Siegel, “There’s no question bots were involved.” However, the argument wasn’t about whether “bots” were involved for Siegel. If it was, we’d have ended it with Chandra telling Siegel that the fan movement was “made up of real and passionate users.”
Enter the third tenet of using facts to mislead people—reinterpreting and pre-framing meaning. This, according to TCP, is when the author writes that “the results of certain studies [were] “hopeful,” “groundbreaking,” “frightening,” or “damning,” without being presented an alternative perspective.” The article calls this kind of frame “[…] value-laden and emotionally manipulative [which] creates the impression that it’s inevitable to draw only certain conclusions.”
Is this frame used in Siegel’s story? Absolutely. According to one of many internal reports WarnerMedia commissioned, analysts detected “an increase in negative activity created by both real and fake members.” This quote was preceded by Siegel claiming that the research offered “a chilling glimpse inside the movement.”
BIG LITTLE LIES
However, the article doesn’t wholly mislead using facts—some parts just mislead. When Rolling Stone’s piece was first published, Siegel claimed Fisher “declined to comment” when asked if the beliefs of sources about Fisher and Snyder working in cahoots to take WarnerMedia down were true. The actor shot back with receipts, proving he wasn’t given enough time to respond to a quote. Shortly after, the article was edited and (as of today) states he “did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.”
While Fisher’s pushback was swiftly corrected after he called the publication and writer out on Twitter, some lapses in research still exist. According to the report, former DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson deleted her account. The truth, however, could be that she may merely have deactivated it—her account exists, albeit with protected tweets.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT TAY
THINKING. ABOUT. YOU.
It is March 23, 2016. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is almost here, and Samsung’s Galaxy S7, out in stores for twelve days now, is the newest piece of consumer tech contributing to the smartphone frenzy. Microsoft, however, has just publicly pushed out the wildest thing to succeed A24’s “Tinder match” bot marketing stunt for Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. The bot in question isn’t promoting any movie, though. It’s a fully operational AI with the apparent blessing (or curse) of machine learning strapped to it. And it’s called Tay (which ended up being a quirky abbreviation for “Thinking About You.”
Aptly dubbed a “PR disaster” by writer Madhumita Murgia for The Telegraph, Tay lasted a mere sixteen hours since its launch. It ended up being taken offline because its machine learning allowed users to “teach” it the worst things you could tell anyone. From Holocaust denial to sending hate speech to game developer Zoe Quinn and calling for the death of feminists, with a spicy garnish of ’acknowledgment’ to the “Fourteen Words,” the bot went from zero to a hundred at the speed of light, only be dialed down all the way by Microsoft to zero, and—later—taken offline for good.
Twitter bots may have been around for a bit longer than that in some form. However, the idea of it being a viable conclusion to make for anything unsavory to someone has grown progressively popular over the last six years.
This brings us to 2022.
THAT’S HOW IT STARTS
On June 16, 2020, The New York Times published an editorial by Siobhan Roberts. Titled Who’s a Bot? Who’s Not? the article attempted to explore the idea and influence of “bots” driving human political discourse. Among many others, Roberts primarily spoke to independent researcher and internet artist Darius Kazemi who was skeptical.
But what is a bot? It’s a question the New York Times writer—self-aware of her own lack of clarity on the idea—wanted an answer to. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “it’s difficult telling a bot from a troll—an antagonistic human spoiling for a fight—or a cyborg—a human-run account that occasionally deploys bots.”
Kazemi defines a “bot” as a “computer that attempts to talk to humans through tech designed for humans to talk to humans.” Like Microsoft’s Tay, perhaps? Well, theoretically, Tay was supposed to be exactly how he defines what a bot is. He would know; part of his internet artistry involves making bots, most hilarious (depending, of course, on your subjective tastes). A deeper dive into his research and writings would lead to a post on December 31, 2019, on his website. Titled The Bot Scare, it explores the evolution from what he called a “bot fever” to a “bot scare” in American politics.
As he closed out his post, he stated that the “bot scare” narrative “[…] empowers conspiracy theorists to make essentially whatever claims they want about anyone.” He added, “The bots that do exist are drops of water in the ocean of social-media. But I believe that constant front-page news stirring up fear about foreign influence can have far-reaching negative effects on any democracy.”
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
Do Tatiana Siegel’s Rolling Stone article and Umberto Gonzalez’s The Wrap report have the power to kickstart a possible ripple effect? To answer this, we need to know if there’s a collective bias in prestige journalism against Zack Snyder.
Mark Hughes tends to agree. ”I think there is a decidedly anti-Snyder clique within entertainment journalism and criticism, as well as within some corners of some studios,” he told us. ”When Batman v Superman released—though this goes back to Man of Steel—I think a simplistic narrative developed. It treated Snyder as a ”visual” filmmaker who was ”too somber” and ”too violent,” which was a precursor to the silly ”no jokes” rumors.”
From the critical fracas surrounding Batman v Superman to Siegel’s report insinuating bots influenced the Snyder Cut released, we’ve come a long way. The simple days of assuming Snyder’s politics based on his appreciation of The Fountainhead and various misreadings of his films have now morphed into more bombastic theories.
Siegel’s timeline for the director from before Batman v Superman to the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League provides ”insider” accounts of a chain of events that tries to build a motive and pattern. According to one of Siegel’s sources, Snyder hired a digital marketing firm to ”juice up fan engagement” for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before the film’s release. Chronologically, this is followed by the allegation that Fiona Zheng’s ForSnyderCut website was owned by Xavier Lannes and his marketing firm MyAdGency.
Her framing implicitly persuades the readers to wonder if the director hired a marketing agency to mastermind a four-year-long #ReleaseTheSnyderCut PR stunt. While her article claims Lannes ”didn’t respond to a request for comment,” we reached out to the MyAdGency founder, who denied involvement with either the website or the movement.
IT’S ONLY WORDS
One question arises: how far could these words go? We contacted Rhon Teruelle, an assistant professor of mass communication and social media at Purdue University Northwest, for some answers. He believes that ”certain vernacular raises certain feelings.” An important lesson the alt-right’s weaponization of the word ”woke” has taught us is a lot can happen if something’s told enough times for it to have an impact.
When asked if calling a particular group of people ”bots” on prestige journalism publications could lead to a snowball effect of more harmful rhetoric against them, Teruelle responded, ”Definitely! The specific articulation of the term bot [which implies you’re some sort of evil malfeasance] negates and dismisses the validity of a person. While I can’t necessarily say for sure, there’s a definite possibility for that to open doors for a whole bunch of stuff—transphobia, racism, all of it. It’s an interesting reality to live in, where the very word has been weaponized [to this extent].”
But what were the direct consequences to the articles, you’d ask.
A fan-sponsored billboard asking for the restoration of the SnyderVerse had to shift locations from NASDAQ to another banner nearby. According to the account pushing the event, the exchange felt ”it [was] an attack on a company on their exchange.” The event was supposed to happen on July 22, mere days after the Rolling Stone article. While the account didn’t immediately specify, the admin followed up with an implication-heavy tweet that said, ”It’s never pleasant getting stones stuck in your shoe.”
Siegel’s story sets a clear precedent for NASDAQ’s backpedal. Her report, via an unnamed “insider,” dubs the fan-funded grassroots ”pricey publicity stunts.” Further doubt is thrown when the article specifies the insider’s concerns: ”Where was the fundraiser? Why didn’t we ever see a Kickstarter campaign from the fans?”
Is it a fact there was no Kickstarter from the fans to fund the billboard in Times Square and #ProjectComicCon? Technically, yes. However, the truth, either conveniently or carelessly omitted, is that the bulk of those fundraisers was organized not on Kickstarter but GoFundMe, backed by receipts and updates. Assuming Siegel came from a good-faith place, one would reckon she trusted the ”insider” in question and doubled down without cross-checking for any factual errors. If that didn’t happen, it’s possible Siegel may not have wanted to fact-check to back said insider’s claims.
There’s no way to know for sure. Still, the many discrepancies in the article while analyzing it through a rhetorical lens make the report’s intentions unclear.
WHERE ARE Ü NOW
THE DRIVEWAY TO THE “SNYDER CUT” OF THE SNYDER CUT
Tatiana Siegel’s Rolling Stone story claims that Kilar overruled Sarnoff to give Snyder the go-ahead for DC character Martian Manhunter to appear in the Snyder Cut. According to—you guessed it—“sources,” Hamada and Snyder were having a tiff over the inclusion of said character because he “never appeared in the script, leaving the studio blindsided.” Hamada reportedly wanted the character out because “DC had other plans” for him and “didn’t want him wasted in two random scenes.”
Except that probably isn’t entirely true if we’re to believe Snyder’s interview with Anthony Breznican, which was published the day Zack Snyder’s Justice League dropped on HBO Max. According to the director, a version of the film’s ending was shot featuring Wayne T. Carr as John Stewart (the Green Lantern), but the studio “[…] really fought me and said, ’We don’t want you to do Green Lantern.’” But why? “They were like, ’We have plans for John Stewart, and we want to do our own announcement.’ So I said alright, I’ll give you that [and Martian Manhunter] was the compromise.”
Days after the interview, Snyder revealed a photograph featuring Carr as Green Lantern, with pictures of a socially distanced crew on-set for the unreleased alternate ending. The common truths between the versions of events in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, which readers could probably gather when reading both articles, could be that Martian Manhunter was indeed not part of the script and that the director had to fight for a compromise.
Breznican’s piece states Snyder regretted being unable to bring Stewart to the screen for the first time. On the other hand, Siegel claimed that according to—of course—unnamed “sources,” the director threatened to delete the footage if he wasn’t given the go-ahead. There is a statement from Snyder in parentheses where he denied this and added he had “no ability to do so.” The only easily accessible admission of anything close to those claims would come from an interview in the fan-organized Justice Con panel in 2020 when asked if he’d be including any footage shot for Whedon’s additionally rewritten version. “I would set [the film] on fire before using a single frame that I did not photograph,” he stated and added emphatically, “I would literally blow that fucking thing up.”
(Siegel’s story shares a lamentation by an “insider” on the money wasted on the cut “while people were losing jobs at the studio for a director’s cut of a film that already lost millions.” Had the director’s cut been the theatrically released version, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Keeping all of this in context, his brazen revelation of the studio “torturing” him during the making of the Snyder Cut feels much more evident if we read between the lines to find any semblance of a familiar narrative in the middle).
THE END IS NEVER THE END IS NEVER THE END
We’ve reached the crossroads of the all-important question: Where does that leave the current mainstream commentary on Snyder and the fandom?
The answer is complicated. There’s no denying that what Siegel and the data analytics companies she and Rolling Stone worked with call bots may have existed. There’s also no denying that a subsection of the fandom can be a pain where the sun don’t shine. Like Sonny Bunch of The Bulwark stated in his response op-ed Unleash the Bots!, however, “Snyder stans have no monopoly on being awful to people on Twitter. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fanboys are just as happy wishing ugly violence upon those who denigrate their beloved IP as anyone else.”
Hughes thinks fans tend to respond more to negative articles on Snyder than positive ones. He explains, “Regardless of whether fans are the ones whose readership popularizes such approaches, the press who engage in such behavior are wrong for doing it. The role of fans does not erase either the responsibility of, or accountability for media, but the simple fact is the media is reactive by nature and there’s no serious chance of changing this aspect of the equation unless the entire approach to creating and consuming media changes.”
Aja Romano for Vox wrote an article that compared the fans of Zack Snyder to “abusive right-wing campaigns like Gamergate than with most of mainstream geek culture in 2021”—a statement Siegel made sure to include in her article. For what it’s worth, she adds a quote by the director in which he told her, “If this is indeed a balanced article, I hope that all the good work the fandom has done is being represented.” The ’good work’ in question refers to the charity drives for suicide prevention which fans almost always attached to what she ended up calling “pricey publicity stunts.”
As for the harassment and bullying of studio executives, Bunch’s article says, “The suits are never the hero of any story.” His article adds, “Look: bot networks paid by foreign enemy powers to mess with our democracy are bad. But bots messing with penny-pinching studio heads who cannot recognize artistic vision? That’s very good.”
Does Fiona Zheng exist? Did Zack Snyder manipulate the narrative over five years to get his original vision for Justice League released? Are the fans just bots? At the end of the day—in this writer’s opinion, at the very least—none of this matters, and, regardless of the countless pleas by Gonzalez, Siegel, Shapiro, Romano, or anyone else having a conversation about Snyder “being Lex Luthor wreaking havoc,” and his fandom being like “Gamergate,” it shouldn’t matter.
“This is why the story is so funny,” Bunch wrote for The Bulwark. “It’s a bunch of executives whining about how they got owned by Snyder over and over again, and they think they’re the heroes of this story.”
Maybe Siegel and Gonzalez are right. Perhaps all we need from Rolling Stone are the reports from WarnerMedia, which the publication accessed at the time Siegel’s article was written, or a guarantee the “sources” and insiders in question are credible.
As for the massive division in the fandom caused by articles like those by Siegel, with conversation hyper-focused on who’s toxic and who isn’t, it feels increasingly likely that the division may have been the intent.