Is ‘Save Spider-Man from Sony’ fueled by pro-Disney bots?

A lot of Marvel fans are angry about the possibility of Spider-Man leaving the MCU, prompted by a corporate dispute between Disney and Sony. But if you look closer at the resulting hashtags, you’ll notice something fishy. Instead of being an organic fan campaign, hashtags like #SaveSpiderMan are full of what appear to be pro-Disney bots.

Dozens of accounts are posting near-identical phrases like “Tony Stark did not travel back in time to get the infinity stones just so Sony could fuck it up,” “U CANT JUST TAKE TOM HOLLAND AFTER WE’VE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH HIM,” “tom holland worked so hard to portray peter parker perfectly,” and “Sony you better fix this.” They’re presented as normal fan tweets, focusing on the emotional message of Tom Holland being harmed by the Disney/Sony split, or Tony Stark’s (fictional) sacrifice being ruined if Sony controls the franchise. So, who is behind these accounts?

Looking at these copy-pasted tweets, there are three plausible options: Either they’re automated bots, they’re fake accounts run by real people, or they’re genuine Marvel stans. I messaged around 20 of them and judging by the handful of replies, it’s option two. There seem to be human beings behind these tweets, but they’re pretty suspicious. Some, like the following two accounts, never posted about Marvel or Spider-Man before this week.

Arvind kumar Bajpayee’s account was created in 2015, and he appears to be an Indian man with 85 followers. (New accounts with fewer followers are automatically suspicious, but plenty of bots and fakes have been around years or were reactivated from a previous user.) When I asked if he copy-pasted his Spider-Man tweet, he replied saying he “just took the picture,” leading to a brief conversation that suggests he doesn’t typically write in this style of American stan language.

His other tweets are almost exclusively attached to hashtags about Indian politics, K-pop, and generic relatable memes. Recently he posted similar copy-pasted tweets on the #SaveAmazonia hashtag, which I’ve noticed is a common thread among fake accounts, bolstering the illusion that they’re sharing real opinions.

Among the other accounts who replied, one (jokingly?) agreed they’re a bot, one said they’re trolling DC fans, one said they copied the tweet from their brother, one unconvincingly said it was “My Personal Opinion Tweet,” and another replied in broken English. A couple deleted their tweets, and the others didn’t reply. Most of their accounts were unconvincing once you scratched the surface, like this popular tweet from @Jessica18638403. Her account was created this month, and her profile photos belong to Instagram model Lily Macapinlac.

It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between real fan campaigns and bots, which is why this strategy is so effective. For instance, “favorite movie” polls are routinely spammed by Alita: Battle Angel GIFs, but how do you tell if those tweets are from real fans or a paid campaign?

Twitter stans often repost the same memes or intentionally boost a hashtag all at once, and it’s easy to create a couple of authentic-sounding tweets and then spam a trending hashtag with them over and over again. These copy-pasted tweets are also easy to find, but I suspect there are more fake accounts hiding in plain sight. The #SaveSpidermanFromSony hashtag is full of similarly formatted tweets with a one-line comment and a reaction image.

This is where the divide between real and fake accounts gets harder to pin down because many of these accounts post nothing but single-line tweets and reaction memes to trending hashtags. But are they fake, or is this just how some people use Twitter? Networks of spam accounts like this do exist, anyway. People get paid to run multiple accounts that post on trending hashtags, sharing innocuous content to either drown out a more serious topic or create the illusion of a real person until it’s time to shill for a product or political campaign. The podcast Reply All investigated one such network in Mexico, where fake accounts boosted banal hashtags to control the trending topics on Mexican Twitter:

“In the morning you arrive at your desk and there’ll be an hour by hour strategy beginning, let’s say, 8 a.m. We’re gonna launch the hashtag “Happy whatever day it is.” Next would be, “Hashtag don’t you hate it when,” and then would be, “Hashtag my mom just told me,” or like “Hashtag I’ve never felt better than.””

Along with relatable hashtags, these accounts spread celebrity conspiracy theories to overshadow serious election news. They were hired to support former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, similar to Russian bots trying to influence American politics through online astroturfing.

Considering the sheer volume of fake-looking Spidey tweets, it certainly seems like a coordinated campaign to sway Marvel fans against Sony. These accounts all participate in other hashtags, but over the past three days, they’ve mobilized to boost the idea of Sony “hurting” Spider-Man or Holland, appealing to the emotions of Marvel fans.

In reality, this is a business dispute between two media conglomerates. Disney and Sony are negotiating who gets what percentage of the Spider-Man franchise’s profits, and whether Marvel’s Kevin Feige will produce the next movie. But for many fans, it’s a purely emotional issue of a beloved character (and actor) being “taken away” from his “home.” Despite the popularity and financial success of Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Venom, there’s also a widespread belief that Disney makes better films. Like the manufactured Marvel/DC rivalry of old, the seeds of a Disney/Sony feud are already planted. These seemingly fake accounts boost support for Disney among Marvel’s Twitter fandom, distracting attention from the fact that Disney was the one to pull out of the deal in the first place.

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Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor