In his review of Bryan Fogel’s “The Dissident,” about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Variety critic Owen Gleiberman notes that the investigative doc “has the shadow intrigue of cyber-warfare” including the hacking of Jeff Bezos’ cell phone and the army of trolls it exposes, allegedly hired to crush voices against the Saudi kingdom on Twitter.
That same cyber-warfare now appears to be targeting the film itself with attempts to manipulate its review scores online.
According to “The Dissident” producer Thor Halvorssen, there are ongoing attempts by Saudi-backed trolls to muzzle the pic by lowering its approval ratings on film-rating site Rotten Tomatoes and on IMDb, which also gives ratings based on reviews.
Halvorssen, who is founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, says he first came across the trolls roughly a year ago on the day “The Dissident” had its premiere at Sundance 2020, attended by around 300 people, including Alec Baldwin, Hilary Clinton and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. No one else had access to the film, or could see the film at that time, he notes. “Yet that day on IMDb there were 400 negative reviews of the film,” according to Halvorssen, who points out that “it is impossible there were more reviews of the film than people who watched it.”
Cut to several months later. In the fall of 2020, after struggling with distribution (Netflix, which won its first feature Oscar for Fogel’s film “Icarus,” would not touch it), “The Dissident” went to the Zurich Film Festival and the Aspen Film Festival. Those who saw it voted on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, giving the doc high scores across the board. Eventually, for a while, a balance was restored due to people actually watching the film.
Fast forward a little more: on Dec. 25, “The Dissident” was distributed in the U.S. by Briarcliff Entertainment. On Rotten Tomatoes, it earned a 96% critics score, says Halvorssen. “Suddenly, there were hundreds and hundreds of [positive] reviews of the film, which reached a 99% [audience] rating on Rotten Tomatoes,” he adds.
Then in mid-January, in just one day, “The Dissident” dropped from a 99% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes to 67%, according to Halvorssen. He recounts that a board member of the Human Rights Foundation on Jan. 12 noticed that some 500 low-approval audience reviews of the doc had been uploaded to Rotten Tomatoes, causing its approval rating to suddenly plunge from above 95% to just 68%.
“The moment you drop under 70%, your film is essentially dead,” Halvorssen claims. “I mean, people who follow individual critics will watch it; but the regular public will not.”
“The Dissident” producer reached out to Rotten Tomatoes and their response at that point was that they were not able to “handle manipulation of this sort.” However, following a Jan. 21 report in the Washington Post, Halvorssen believes that Rotten Tomatoes “must have have deleted” the reviews that were “obviously manipulated.” The score is “now back to 70-something per cent,” he says. The film’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes was 79% on Feb. 5.
A Rotten Tomatoes representative confirmed to Variety that there have been deliberate attempts to manipulate “The Dissident’s” Rotten Tomatoes score and that the company has intervened to remove some attempts to manipulate the doc’s approval ratings on their website.
It’s not the first time Rotten Tomatoes has been subjected to an alleged troll campaign. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” two years ago was reportedly targeted by negative rating trolling, which prompted Rotten Tomatoes owner Fandango, a Comcast unit, to force anyone who rates a movie to prove that they purchased a ticket to see it. However, that layer of security does not exist for “The Dissident” because it is available on demand on several outlets, including Amazon Prime.
Meanwhile, also in mid-January, “The Dissident” was inundated on IMDb by 1,175 one-star reviews over the course of a few days, according to Washington Post. Votes that, a breakdown on IMDb shows, are coming mostly from outside the U.S. “even though the film is currently only available within the U.S,” says Halvorssen. He alleges that the trolling is backed by the Saudi government in an effort “to sink the film as a viable commercial product,” he says.
Despite the alleged attempt to manipulate its score, “The Dissident” on Feb. 4 had an 8.1 out of 10 rating on IMDb, which uses a 1-to-10-star system. That may be due to algorithms that automatically do not count sudden deluges of one-star reviews.
IMDb did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment.
Disclosure: SRMG, a Saudi publishing and media company which is publicly traded, remains a minority investor in PMC, Variety’s parent company.