A WarnerMedia report reveals that bots and other inauthentic users bolstered the fan-led campaign for director Zack Snyder’s Justice League do-over
Photo Illustration by Rolling Stone. Images in Illustration Clay Enos/Warner Bros, 5
Zack Snyder was becoming increasingly agitated. Over the course of several weeks in the spring of 2020, the director repeatedly demanded that the names of two producers – Geoff Johns and Jon Berg – be removed from his upcoming re-cut of Justice League, the DC superhero movie that had tanked back in 2017. His high-powered CAA agent began calling Warner Bros. daily to check on why the pair hadn’t been excised from the list of credits. Simultaneously, Snyder’s wife Deborah, another producer on the film, started pressing an executive in the studio’s story department with the same directive. (Snyder admits the couple “asked the studio” to intervene after “a personal plea” to Johns and Berg was ignored.) On June 26, 2020, Snyder had had enough. According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, Snyder confronted an executive in the studio’s postproduction department and issued a threat: “Geoff and Jon are dragging their feet on taking their names off my cut. Now, I will destroy them on social media.”
A toxic social media movement had already been building around the director since at least 2018, spiking with online cries for Warner Bros. to #ReleaseTheSnyderCut of Justice League two years later. As Snyder’s demands escalated behind the scenes — including for more money to finish his four-hour director’s cut of the film for HBO Max and access to intellectual property — so did a flood of attacks aimed at Warner Bros.: calls for boycotts, demands for some executives to be fired, even death threats against them. Fans went after anyone or anything deemed a danger to the so-called SnyderVerse, including directors like Adam Wingard (whose Godzilla vs. Kong launched on HBO Max 13 days after Snyder Cut and stole some of its thunder) and movies like Wonder Woman 1984 (on which Johns was a writer). The onslaught included cyber harassment so severe Warner Bros. security division got involved. (A Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson declined to comment, “as this matter predates the current leadership and new company.”)
And as the mayhem built, many insiders questioned how organic the SnyderVerse legion really was. According to two reports commissioned by WarnerMedia and recently obtained by Rolling Stone, at least 13 percent of the accounts that took part in the conversation about the Snyder Cut were deemed fake, well above the three to five percent that cyber experts say they typically see on any trending topic. (In public filings, Twitter has estimated that the percentage of daily active accounts on its platform that are “false or spam” is less than five percent.) So while Snyder had scores of authentic, flesh-and-blood fans, those real stans were amplified by a disproportionate number of bogus accounts.
Two firms contacted by Rolling Stone that track the authenticity of social media campaigns, Q5id and Graphika, also spotted inauthentic activity coming from the SnyderVerse community. And yet another firm, Alethea Group, found that the forsnydercut.com domain — which claims to have made the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut hashtag go viral in May of 2018, and became the landing hub for efforts to bring Snyder back to the helm of the DC universe — was, at least at one point, registered to a person who also ran a now-defunct ad agency which promoted its ability to bring “cheap, instant Avatar traffic to your website.”
Rolling Stone spoke with more than 20 people involved with both the original Justice League and Snyder’s cut, most of whom believe that the director was working to manipulate the ongoing campaign. Snyder claims that, “if anyone” was pulling strings on the social media fervor, it was Warner Bros. “trying to leverage my fan base to bolster subscribers to their new streaming service.” But one source maintains, “Zack was like a Lex Luthor wreaking havoc.”
For a time, rival studios and digital marketing executives were intrigued by the SnyderVerse fan mobilization, wondering how they, too, might better harness the power of social media. But soon many came to question what appeared to be suspect activity: Hashtags like #ReleaseTheSnyderCut saturated social media beginning in late 2019, racking up hundreds of thousands of tweets a day to pressure Warner Bros. to release the director’s version of the film. And when the studio finally released Synder’s new cut in March 2021, #RestoreTheSnyderVerse, a fledgling fan hashtag calling for Warner Bros. to greenlight more of Snyder’s DC films, racked up more than a million tweets in one day.
“Just look at the drop: [That hashtag was] trending at a million tweets a day for when they wanted to release the Snyder Cut. And it dropped down to 40,000 within days,” says one digital marketing executive, who claims the phenomenon became the talk of Hollywood. “You don’t see a drop like that organically.” Instead, the executive says, it appears to be a classic example of “weaponizing a movement.”
In mid-January 2021, three months before the Snyder Cut of Justice League was finally released, an Instagram account with the handle @daniras_ilust posted a gruesome image depicting the decapitated heads of Johns, DC Films president Walter Hamada, and former Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich. The image rapidly circulated among the fandom, with SnyderVerse devotees even tagging social media accounts of some of the children of the trio. It was alarming posts like these that prompted WarnerMedia, concerned about the safety of its employees, to take the unusual step of quietly commissioning a series of reports from a third-party cybersecurity firm to analyze the trolling.
The reports had taken on a mythic status within Warner Bros. Some doubted they even existed. But a small group at the parent company did have access to them. The main report, dated April 2021 and titled “SnyderCut Social Media Presence,” offers a chilling glimpse inside the powerful movement.
“After researching online conversations about the Snyder Cut of the Justice League‘s release, specifically the hashtags ‘ReleaseTheSnyderCut’ and ‘RestoreTheSnyderVerse’ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, [the analysts] detected an increase in negative activity created by both real and fake authors,” the report concluded. “One identified community was made up of real and fake authors that spread negative content about WarnerMedia for not restoring the ‘SnyderVerse.’ Additionally, three main leaders were identified within the authors scanned on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — one leader on each platform. These leaders received the highest amount of engagement and have many followers, which gives them the ability to influence public opinion.” Furthermore, the report stated, many authors were spreading “harmful content” about then-Warner Bros. chairman Ann Sarnoff (who had called the fan trolling “reprehensible” in an interview with Variety), “with the majority of authors calling her a liar for the claim that there is no Snyder Cut of the movie and called for Warner Media to fire her. These authors also started using the hashtag ‘BoycottWarnerBros.’” Another internal report found an active sub-community that was attacking Johns.
Rolling Stone asked three other cybersecurity and social media intelligence firms, including Q5id, to crunch SnyderVerse-related data from the months leading up to the Snyder Cut’s 2021 release, looking for indications of inauthentic social media activity. (Such activity could take a number of forms, including attempts to manipulate discourse involving human-operated networks of inauthentic accounts; or the use of software to automate account posting and engagement activity, often referred to as “bots.”) Q5id chief information officer and chief technology officer Becky Wanta says her firm’s analysis indicates “there’s no question that bots were involved.”
Wanta explains: “There are certain patterns that bots give off that we saw here. They arrive at almost the same time in huge numbers. And many times the origin of thousands or even millions of messages can be traced to a single source or two. Sometimes, they can be traced to unusual servers in remote countries. And their content will be precisely similar.”
That means a fandom amplified by fake accounts helped shake down a major studio — at an ultimate cost to Warner Bros. of more than $100 million — to re-release a movie that had already bombed years earlier.
The campaign didn’t end with the March 18, 2021, release of the Snyder Cut. The Wrap reported in May that bots may have factored into Snyder winning two fan-favorite awards at this year’s Oscars. And according to the social media firm Graphika, the pattern of a mostly organic social media fan frenzy augmented by a small number of inauthentic accounts is still playing out. “We see clear signs of coordinated online activity from May and June this year, when multiple communities pushed hashtags promoting Zack Snyder and deriding Warner Bros.,” Avneesh Chandra, a data analyst at Graphika, tells Rolling Stone. As examples, Graphika points to accounts that seemed to exist only to barrage Twitter and the replies of WarnerMedia social media accounts with constant pro-Snyder hashtags.
Chandra downplays the effectiveness of that inauthentic activity, noting that “many of those accounts are spammy and failed to cut through the noise,” but he says it’s clear there is some manipulation occuring. “The bulk of this activity was made up of real and passionate users taking direction from influential figures in the pro-Snyder community,” Chandra says. “We regularly see these types of adversarial social media campaigns that are driven by real people coordinating online. When you kick the hornet’s nest of a large, engaged, and confrontational fan community, that can be just as, if not more, scary as facing down an army of fake accounts.”
Every superhero tale needs an origin story. And the groundwork for the SnyderVerse siege had been laid well before 2020. While Snyder denies it, one source tells Rolling Stone the director hired a digital marketing firm to juice fan engagement back in 2016, when his $250 million film Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was savaged by critics (earning a dismal 29-percent RottenTomatoes rating) and disappointed Warner Bros. brass at the box office, as well as the DC fan base. (The movie took in $874 million worldwide; a DC stand-alone film like 2019’s Joker, by comparison, cost $70 million and earned $1.074 billion worldwide.) Nevertheless, the Snyder army was coalescing.
On February 27, 2017, Snyder showed his first cut of the much-anticipated Justice League — intended to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s all-star superhero juggernaut The Avengers, which had earned $1.519 billion worldwide five years earlier and was directed by Joss Whedon. Executives at the studio, headed up at the time by former chief Kevin Tsujihara, felt the film had major issues, including that it was convoluted and still too long at more than two-and-a-half hours. The movie was deemed “a disaster” and “full-on failure” by those in the room, and, as a result, the studio pivoted and enlisted Whedon to come on as a writer and consultant, according to multiple knowledgeable sources.
It was a humiliating turn for Snyder, who had once been entrusted with creating the architecture for the DC universe and its slate of films, including Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the upcoming The Flash. Nine days later, Snyder presented another cut to a smaller group. It was still well over two hours. Whedon gave notes on that cut; some say Snyder wasn’t receptive. Then, in mid-March of 2017, Snyder, a father of eight, endured an unthinkable tragedy when his 20-year-old daughter died. Still, he continued working to cut down the film, while the studio had Whedon operating on a separate track to lighten its dark, superserious tone.
On May 5, 2017, Snyder screened his final version of Justice League on the Burbank lot for all of the studio’s department heads. It clocked in at two hours and 18 minutes. One source familiar with that cut called it “unwatchable” and “joyless.” Meanwhile, Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was prepping to direct reshoots in the summer so that the film could make its November 2017 release date. None of the backstage drama surrounding Whedon’s hiring had surfaced in the press at the time.
Two and a half weeks later, on May 22, 2017, Snyder announced the news of his daughter’s death and his exit from Justice League. His wife Deborah also said she was taking a break to focus on healing. “In the last two months, I’ve come to the realization … I’ve decided to take a step back from the movie to be with my family, be with my kids, who really need me,” Zack Snyder told The Hollywood Reporter. “They are all having a hard time. I’m having a hard time.”
Warner Bros. released Justice League, with its star-laden cast of Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot, on Nov. 17, 2017, and it was quickly proclaimed a disaster. Critics bristled at the schizophrenic result, a mash-up of Snyder’s brooding, violent, R-rated version poking through Whedon’s campy, PG-13 incarnation. The film’s $658 million global haul was an embarrassment given its $300 million budget. (By contrast, the DC stand-alone Wonder Woman made $165 million more than Justice League but with half the budget that same year.)
Though Snyder had created the architecture for the entire DC Universe — he is responsible for casting Affleck (Batman), Gadot (Wonder Woman), Ezra Miller (Flash), Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg), and Amber Heard (Mera) — and was a producer on various stand-alone and spinoff films like 2016’s Suicide Squad, he was now on the outside. The studio was looking to take the universe in a different direction and was making plans to replace Affleck and Cavill.
Around this time, sources say, Snyder sent one of his editors to the studio to retrieve hard drives that contained materials for Justice League. Snyder was asked to return them, considering they were studio property. He balked. (Snyder says he was contractually entitled to files connected with the film, that the materials were for “my personal use” and that he was not asked to return them at that time.) Security was notified, sources say, but no action was taken. No one expected Snyder to begin tinkering with an alternate cut of the film.
But a new force was rising: the SnyderVerse army. Forsnydercut.com, one of the loudest and most influential voices in online Snyder fandom, made its debut in late December 2017, and, according to both the site and the main report commissioned by WarnerMedia, played an influential role in making the Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut go viral.
Zack Snyder and Jason Momoa on the set of ‘Justice League.’
It’s unclear who, precisely, is behind the site. Four participants are listed there as its developers, including a self-identified fan and site founder who purports to be from China named Fiona Zheng. The site was originally registered using a privacy service in December 2017, but web registration records show that, during a brief lapse in the privacy protection from mid March to mid-October 2021, a digital marketing consultant named Xavier Lannes was listed as the registrant of forsnydercut.com. The social media analytics firm Alethea tells Rolling Stone that it is highly unlikely that ownership changed hands before or after that period.
A LinkedIn account for Lannes, who is not mentioned on forsnydercut.com, identifies him as the CEO of a Los Angeles-based digital ad firm called MyAdGency. The website MyAdGency.com is no longer active, but an archived version of the site touted such services as bringing “cheap, instant Avatar traffic to your website.” The agency boasted: “We use the latest technology concentrated in the palm of your customer’s hands to grow your business beyond your wildest dreams!” Snyder denies knowing or ever hiring Lannes; Lannes did not respond to a request for comment. Zheng, meanwhile, despite prolific tweeting about Snyder from 2016 up until the day of the Snyder Cut’s release in 2021, has posted just twice since then. A query to Zheng went unanswered.
Over the two years following Justice League’s disappointing bow, Warner Bros. faced changes. In June 2018, AT&T closed an $85 billion deal to acquire the Time Warner media empire, whose sprawling assets included CNN and HBO. The following year, Tsujihara resigned following a Hollywood Reporter exposé about his apparent efforts to secure roles for an aspiring actress with whom he had a sexual relationship. Sarnoff replaced him.
All the while, the Snyder fandom continued to call for the studio to greenlight a Snyder version of Justice League, launching a Change.org petition and mobilizing the hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. Executives who didn’t fall in line faced a social media beating. Former DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson deleted her Twitter account in September 2018 after SndyerVerse adherents targeted her for merely praising Todd Phillips’ Joker, a film that exists outside the Snyder canon.
Pricey publicity stunts ensued, like a towering Times Square ad — which can cost more than $50,000 per day — and a plane flying over Comic Con with a banner calling for DC to release the Snyder Cut. None of the press reports at the time addressed who was footing the bill. “Where was the fundraiser? Why didn’t we ever see a Kickstarter campaign from the fans?” asks one insider who became skeptical of the grassroots nature of the SnyderVerse movement, considering the cost of such marketing endeavors.
Whatever role he may or may not have played in the Snyder Cut publicity blitz, at the close of 2019, Snyder sent his disciples into overdrive when he posted a picture of a set of film canisters labeled “JL Director’s Cut Running Time 214 [minutes].” Running over the picture were the words: “Is it real? Does it exist? Of course it does.” One insider scoffed at the post: “He refused to return the hard drives, which were studio property. This was just more orchestrated bullshit from Zack.”
The fandom — which has been dubbed “toxic” by such outlets as Vanity Fair and Vox, with the latter noting it “has far more in common with abusive right-wing campaigns like Gamergate than with most of mainstream geek culture” — continued to push, and Snyder began negotiations with Warner Bros. on a Justice League redo in January 2020. The plan was to release his cut on the in-development HBO Max streaming platform. Sources say the director insisted that no new footage would be needed. After Snyder screened the 214-minute version at his home right before the March 2020 Covid lockdown, HBO Max executive Bob Greenblatt greenlit the project, a move signed off on by new WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar. The company officially announced the film on May 20, 2020, with Greenblatt noting, “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.” (Silicon Valley transplant Kilar had raised eyebrows internally when he initially floated the unconventional idea of announcing Snyder Cut from his own Twitter account and having the director flown to Dallas to address the AT&T board. Some became even more concerned when the CEO, who was publicly bantering with Snyder on Twitter, was told that Snyder was in possession of studio property, and, they say, he simply shrugged it off. Kilar says he “never had the remotest thought” to fly Snyder to Texas to address the board, and says he “would never” shrug off someone having studio property.)
Still, Snyder wasn’t satisfied, as Johns and Berg’s names remained on the project as of summer 2020. Sources say the director blamed the pair for his losing control of the DC universe when they replaced him to run the portfolio of superhero films back in 2016. Then, after four months of a fan siege targeting Johns and Berg, they were quietly removed from the credits. (Snyder notes that neither he nor his wife have “have ever said anything negative about Geoff Johns or Jon Berg on social media or in interviews,” and says they wanted the pair’s names removed from the credits because “this was not the movie they believed in, developed, or helped us to get made.”) Around the same time, Kilar agreed to give Snyder $60 million for postproduction and special effects work. That figure marked a significant bump from initial reports that pegged finishing costs at $20-$30 million.
What the studio didn’t know at the time was that Snyder had already shot footage in his backyard at the height of the pandemic. Sources say the rogue shoot flouted Covid protocols and union guidelines. (Snyder acknowledges two shoots were done in his backyard during the pandemic, insisting that both adhered to Covid protocols, and noting that one shoot was authorized by Warner Bros.) Furthermore, they say Snyder wanted an additional $13 million to cover additional production costs. Sarnoff pushed back, as extra footage wasn’t part of the deal.
Meanwhile, the Snyder controversy had begun spinning in new directions. Fisher, an actor who Snyder had plucked from obscurity to play Cyborg in Synder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, started speaking out against Whedon, the director who’d been hired to replace Snyder on Justice League back in 2017.
“Joss Whedon’s on-set treatment of the cast and crew of Justice League was gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable,” Fisher tweeted. He added, bringing Snyder’s alleged threat regarding his onetime colleagues to fruition five days after Snyder made his final push to have the pair removed: “He was enabled, in many ways, by Geoff Johns and Jon Berg.” (Nearly all of the insiders interviewed by Rolling Stone say they believe Fisher and Snyder were working in tandem, based on Fisher’s tweets coming directly on the heels of Snyder’s behind-the-scenes demands. Snyder calls the allegation “totally untrue”; Fisher declined comment to Rolling Stone.) Gal Gadot echoed Fisher’s complaints about Whedon’s on-set behavior, saying that the director “kind of threatened my career and said if I did something, he would make my career miserable.” The actress Charisma Carpenter — who had worked with Whedon on two TV series — took to Twitter to say the director had “abused his power on numerous occasions while working together on the sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.”
Whedon has denied these accusations against him. As for Fisher’s subsequent charge that top executives participated in “blatantly racist conversations” surrounding the film according to people who’d been “in the room,” an external investigation, conducted by Katherine Forrest of the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore and concluded in December 2020, found “no credible support” that there was racial animus at Warner Bros. and cleared Berg, Johns, and Emmerich of such charges.
That same month, a battle was also brewing between Snyder and DC Films president Walter Hamada over a Snyder Cut arc involving the character Martian Manhunter. Sources say the character never appeared in the script, leaving the studio blindsided. Hamada demanded the footage not be used; DC had other plans for Martian Manhunter and didn’t want him wasted in two random scenes. But sources say Snyder threatened to delete other footage if he didn’t get his way. (Snyder denies this and adds that he had no ability to do so.) At the same time, Fisher turned up the dial on Twitter, taking direct aim at Hamada, calling him “the most dangerous kind of enabler.” (In Feb. 2021, Cravath’s Forrest released a statement absolving Hamada of any wrongdoing. Warner Bros. also released a statement noting that Hamada was at a different Warner subsidiary when 2017’s Justice League was released.) Fans posted such incendiary images as Hamada and Sarnoff, who had also been fighting for the removal of the unauthorized footage, photoshopped wearing Ku Klux Klan robes.
In a move that dismayed studio insiders, Kilar overruled Sarnoff and allowed Martian Manhunter to appear in the Snyder Cut. The director was also given the $13 million he’d been demanding in production costs. That brought the studio’s total expenditure on the film to $73 million, before marketing costs put it over the $100 million mark. “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,” notes an insider. (Snyder says “The studio never would have released my version of Justice League unless it made financial/business sense for them.”)
But for those who thought the SnyderVerse mob would move on, they were mistaken. In early 2021, Fisher attacked Warner Bros.’ then-global communications head, Johanna Fuentes, for some unspecified role in the Cravath investigation. Fans then began harassing Fuentes, a woman of color, on Twitter and calling for her ouster. A simple story written by this reporter about Kiersey Clemons being cast for a Flash stand-alone movie also incurred the wrath of the collective just days before the Snyder Cut release in March 2021. Snyder called to say he wanted several sentences from the story removed. “I’m just telling you what the fans are going to do. Trust me, they are pretty, pretty, pretty rough,” he warned. The sentences stayed, and the SnyderVerse throng descended.
Even after the film opened, random bystanders continued to be hit by the SnyderVerse shrapnel. When fans review-bombed Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong, sources say the director asked Snyder through an intermediary to tell his fans to stand down — and that Snyder refused. (Snyder says he was never asked to have his fans stand down, adding: “Furthermore, I do not control my fans. They have their own will and their own opinions; you really give me too much credit.”) Another source says Warner Bros. successfully lobbied IMDb, which includes user reviews, to weed out trolls targeting Godzilla vs. Kong. (Wingard declined comment.) Similarly, factions of the SnyderVerse army review-bombed James Gunn’s Suicide Squad four months later, motivating the director to acknowledge the mob on Twitter: “I’ll live — stuff like this means nothing in the big picture. (And important to point out most the SnyderCut fans have been supportive, it’s only a few who feel it’s worthwhile spending their time doing stuff like this.)” Ultimately, both films outperformed Snyder Cut on HBO Max.
One year after the film’s release, Snyder is no longer working with Warner Bros., having moved on to Netflix, where he is currently shooting the sci-fi film Rebel Moon, described as an ambitious two-part movie. Fisher is playing a resistance fighter named Blood Axe. The studio’s plans for the DC Extended Universe no longer involve Snyder, who ,anfinally returned the Justice League materials he’d confiscated following a settlement reached with the studio in August 2021.
The SnyderVerse army often called for a number of heads to roll at Warner Bros. and WarnerMedia. Hamada appears safe, given the success of this year’s The Batman, a movie made outside of the Snyder-built interconnected universe. Johns continues to work with WarnerMedia on projects including The CW’s breakout Stargirl, whose third season debuts on Aug. 31. And Berg is said to have unannounced projects in development with the studio. Several executives caught in the Sndyer web didn’t survive a recent regime change ushered in after Discovery closed a $43 billion deal to acquire WarnerMedia, including Kilar, Sarnoff, Emmerich, and Fuentes, though “it had nothing to do with the SnyderVerse,” says one insider at WarnerMedia. Emmerich, for one, inked a five-year producing deal with the studio. Still, that didn’t stop the fandom from celebrating and taking credit for those executives’ exits. They now use hashtags #RestoreTheSnyderVerse and #DeborahSnyderForDCStudios, referring to a push to make Snyder’s wife the head of the DCEU.
Some who witnessed the SnyderVerse fan wrath privately lament that WarnerMedia didn’t do a better job of protecting those affected. One called it “the grossest examples of mass indifference” as executives were left hung out to dry. But those measures likely would have done little to stop the onslaught of one of social media’s most vicious communities.
For his part, Snyder says: “As an artist it was fulfilling to be able to finally see my vision realized after such a difficult time in my life and for it to be so well received. I am grateful to both the fan community and Warner Bros. for allowing this to happen. To dwell on negativity and rumors serves no one.” Referencing various charitable causes to which the Snyder army has donated funds, he adds, “If this is indeed a balanced article, I hope that all the good work the fandom has done is being represented.”
Regardless of whether there was behind-the-scenes manipulation in the SnyderVerse, for Wanta, whose firm spots and analyzes inauthentic online activity, the phenomenon offers a blueprint on how to weaponize a fan base. “That’s my concern with the manipulation that’s happening inside these movements, relative to bots — you can drive the court of public opinion,” says Wanta. “It needs to be dealt with, because it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley