In an era in which it's accepted as true fact that global opinion is being swayed by a combination of Russian interests and domestic billionaires utilizing sophisticated psychometrics and analytics, it's difficult to know what's conspiracy theory and what's just… theory.
As Bleeding Cool's Editor in Chief Rich Johnston noted to me recently, Cambridge Analytica used to just be a place he passed by on his way to check out comics at Forbidden Planet London, which once had the spot right next door to them (and is still in the same neighborhood). Now, it's the subject of government investigations around the globe.
When it comes to fandom, trolls used to just be contrarian individuals who hated things you loved and enjoyed needling you about it. Now they're part of international campaigns to sow division and mistrust among people who would otherwise find plenty of common cause and eventually work out the parts upon which they didn't agree.
So, if you see a group of trolls these days which seem to be coordinating their efforts, it's natural to be suspicious of who's behind it and what their motives might be. When I spotted such a group of highly determined trolls bashing The Alienist in some of our posts about the TV show, I got curious and looked into it.
The original novel The Alienist by Caleb Carr has been one of my favorite books for a long time. It's a well-crafted thriller based on New York (and other) history and written by someone who has a rare mastery of that history. If you're familiar with my posts here on Bleeding Cool, about the intersections of history, entertainment, and sometimes politics, then you can probably see why that would appeal to me.
At first I though our band of trolls were simply confused — they claim that The Alienist is a British story transplanted to an American setting, and that Carr himself is actually British. Both things are obviously untrue. As for Carr, not only is he a well-known New Yorker, but he is the son of a famous New Yorker, Lucian Carr, who was part of the Beat Generation movement and friends with William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others in that movement. In other words, it's impossible to cast Caleb Carr as someone who's not very familiar with New York City.
Likewise, the trolls' claims that The Alienist is not good history are easy to dispatch. The novel The Alienist is fiction, but the underlying characterizations of real people, events, places, and the atmosphere of the times is generally quite accurate to my eye, and to the eyes of most other experts. Carr knows his stuff, and has credits that include extensive contributions to The Quarterly Journal of Military History and several non-fiction books on history such as The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians, and The Devil Soldier: The American Soldier of Fortune Who Became a God in China.
When this group of trolls plaguing our posts on The Alienist couldn't be dissuaded that they were mistaken, I got curious. They claimed to be from the United States, but post from IP addresses outside the country and have a poor grasp of the English language. They have also been posting their weirdly incorrect anti-Alienist rants in places including The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, The Mary Sue, and other sites. One commonality between all those sites is that — like Bleeding Cool — they all use the Disqus commenting system. I like Disqus; it's a very useful system that is easy to implement, which is why we use it here at Bleeding Cool. And I do think they do a better job fighting off trolls than most, so I'm not blaming them; I'm merely pointing out that their popularity seems to have made them a target in this case.
In addition to posting their weird anti-Alienist rants, they also have a thing about misidentifying other films and TV series as being British as well. Such as the comment rant on this post at Cinemablend about the film Love, Simon, and in the comments here again at Hollywood Reporter on a post about Parks and Recreation.
Being fair, I don't know for sure that this is part of some Russian troll factory plan. But that comment thread on Parks and Recreation gets to the heart of why I think it might be. They always bring a rant about guns into the discussion sooner or later. That plus the fact that they don't understand or write English well, plus the fact that they're posting from outside the United States… a Russian troll factory fits those facts better than anything.
If it was based in China, I doubt their grasp of American history would be so sloppy. Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have an impressive knowledge of Western literature, to an extent that suggests to me that he'd disapprove of a shaky grasp of the underlying history in any such operation of influence under his purview. It'd have to be good enough to be convincing, at least.
So what's the deal besides supporting the NRA, creating division between the United States and the UK, and… oh by the way, they really hate Chris Evans too (who in the world hates Chris Evans?).
Beyond the notion of sowing distrust of all things British in the U.S., it appears they're playing some small part in trying to alter our perception of the history of gun ownership and control in this country. That is unfortunately not too difficult to do, as accurate historic rates of gun ownership in the U.S. are difficult to ascertain from certain points of our history — particularly the 19th century — and have been prone to manipulation by both sides of the debate where they are available.
That aside, fortunately these trolls are pretty bad at what they're doing, and I really hope that because of that, they simply stop embarrassing themselves and give up trying to mess with our history. It's pretty annoying, and I could spin more believable historical propaganda about any country in the world that you'd care to name, that would be stunningly difficult to disprove. Without even trying.