James Gunn’s Firing Sets A Worrying Precedent

Alt-right Internet abusers just scored a win.

Image credit to Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

Disney fired James Gunn from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 on Friday, ostensibly due to distasteful and offensive tweets he made back in 2011.

A week earlier, Guild Wars 2 developer ArenaNet fired writers Jessica Price and Peter Fries, ostensibly due to an online altercation between Price and a player.

Though he’d previously apologised for them and has demonstrably grown beyond them, Gunn's rape and pedophilia jokes were reprehensible, the kind of tone-deaf shock comedy one might expect from a former Troma filmmaker. Likewise, Price’s behaviour was unprofessional. But that's beside the point here. Neither of these cases were really about what the fired parties said. Rather, the principal issue revolves around social media attacks, for both dismissals came about thanks to concentrated efforts by Internet Nazis (figurative and literal).

Let’s get something straight: nobody involved in the principal anti-Gunn campaign was genuinely concerned about his tweets - at least, not some jokes he made years ago. These were members of the alt-right who hate the things Gunn tweets about Donald Trump. They’ve almost certainly made more offensive jokes than Gunn in their lives - hell, so has Trump, while holding the office of president. Gunn grew out of his edgelord phase into a more mature, empathetic filmmaker, while Trump supporters continue to cheer at their boy's sexual assault jokes and savour his racist invective. They hate that Gunn is no longer one of them, hate that he criticises their beloved president, and hate that he’s a successful filmmaker - and their first instinct is to get him fired.

How do I know this? It’s been a tactic of these people for years - and I do literally mean these same people.

One of the most visible advocates for Gunn’s dismissal, men's rights activist and all-around garbage person Mike Cernovich, has a history of running social media campaigns to ruin the careers of his (usually left-wing) enemies. Also on record as being genuinely, not-jokingly pro-rape, he was (predictably) heavily involved in GamerGate back in 2014, stalking and threatening game developer Zoe Quinn and making money off his newfound proto-alt-right fans in the process. Last year, he had MSNBC contributor Sam Seder fired thanks to a campaign that revolved around years-old joke tweets (although the network shortly reconsidered after Cernovich had been placed in context). Along with fellow anti-Gunn crusader Jack Posobiec, he was a loud proponent of the ludicrous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, itself invented to discredit the Clintons as members of a child sex ring. Even now, they’re trying to label actor and Trump critic Michael Ian Black as a pedophile simply because he tweeted about pizza. 

Cernovich and Posobiec both have large followings on Twitter and elsewhere, and those people are more than willing to spread their messages. Either they gullibly believe the bullshit, or they’re fully aware that it’s bullshit yet spread the libel anyway, wearing masks of “concerned citizens.” Hypocrites all, given their support of Trump, but they’re likely fully aware of their double standards - and certainly don’t care about it. They care only about achieving their goal.

The process is simple: bombard enemies’ employers with claims they’re toxic in some way, to the point where the employer starts to doubt their employees, or just wants the dark cloud of controversy to go away. In Gunn’s case, anyone with a baseline level of reading and internet comprehension can identify his tweets as the creations of a gross edgelord looking solely to provoke, but these campaigns rely on the kneejerk reactions of the unsavvy. In many cases, they’ll straight-up invent claims (like “James Gunn is under FBI investigation for child pornography”) and spam them at celebrities, hoping for that sweet, legitimising retweet, doing the same for anyone who dissents. That the internet mob convinced Ted Cruz to take Gunn’s tweets at face value, suspecting Gunn of actual rape or pedophilia, is a testament to just how forceful their Twitter campaigns are.

The alt-right is good at this. They've spent years, beginning in earnest before even GamerGate, learning how best to weaponise internet outrage. They're exceptionally good at banding together under a unified message. They know how fast rumours of pedophilia travel on the internet, and that corporations will act just as swiftly to distance themselves from them. In doing what they do, they’ve successfully co-opted the #MeToo movement, turning the public’s outrage against their enemies. It doesn't matter whether these enemies are guilty or not, only that there's enough noise to get them fired. In a just world, these people would be similarly destroyed by #MeToo. But given that they make their living off gullible alt-right dudes, they've got nobody to answer to, nobody to fire them, nobody who cares whether they've literally been arrested for rape (as Cernovich has been).

I’ve seen this shit happen again and again, always led by the same people and almost always on baseless claims. It’s even happened to me, when I’ve spoken out against GamerGate and various toxic fandoms over the years. The dogpile mob didn't like what I said, so my employers received demands to fire me. Luckily, my employers were savvy enough to see the bad-faith arguments for what they were, but not everybody understands how the internet’s bad actors function. 

These people sought to get Gunn fired because, as an outspoken Trump critic, they didn't like him, plain and simple - the old jokes were just a tool. The same goes for Price; alt-right gamers have never liked that women work on “their” games, and a couple unprofessional tweets were the excuse they needed to have Price fired. And now that both campaigns have succeeded, a disturbing precedent has been set. ArenaNet and Disney sent a message that employers are willing to throw people under the bus in the face of social media campaigns. So emboldened, the online assailants are celebrating, newly empowered to destroy the careers of anyone who dares cross them.

That's not an exaggeration, by the way: a perusal of alt-right hangouts like Reddit or Twitter reveals legions of assholes giddy with vengeance.

Perhaps Disney simply found a convenient excuse to fire someone who'd become too hard to work with - or just as likely, too expensive. Or maybe they just pulled the notorious Disney controversy hair-trigger that’s even attempted to erase from history much of its own questionable output (like Song of the South, hoax-filled “documentary” White Wilderness, or any number of racist shorts). It’s easy to understand Disney’s decision - it’s Disney, after all, one of the most family-conscious brands in the world. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to have done.

For ArenaNet, capitulating to Internet assholes sparked an industry-wide scandal that shone a light on employee-employer relations. For Disney, it’s produced a significant fan outcry regarding future Guardians films. If Disney had refused to hire Gunn on the basis of his tweets (or, frankly, his violent and transgressive earlier work), that’d be understandable. But in this instance, they buckled almost instantly to a wave of Internet bullies and trolls, giving them the courage and confidence to engage in further attacks. It’s a worrying and outright dangerous precedent to set.

Regardless of your opinion on James Gunn, that should be crystal clear.

UPDATE: online dirt-digging campaigns similar to the one against Gunn have now begun against fellow Trump critics Patton Oswalt, Dan Harmon, Sarah Silverman, and Anthony Jeselnik. And based on well-established patterns of events, you can bet they won't stop at celebrities.