The internet can be a cruel and toxic place and yet, we keep coming back to it. For all its faults, the internet does provide a wealth of information that we use in our daily lives. Reviews, in particular, are our go-to resource for making a decision on what to buy, not just with goods and services, but for media content including films, TV shows, and games.
When we see a new movie release with an overwhelming amount of negative user reviews, we pick something else to stream. But not all reviews are necessarily genuine, especially if they’re coming from average users and not professional critics. They could be a product of an internet phenomenon called review bombing.
What is Review Bombing?
Within hours of release of the video game The Last of Us Part II, thousands of users took to aggregate review site Metacritic to give it a generous 0 out of 10 points. A video game that received universal acclaim from critics, as well as the Game of the Year award in 2020, did so poorly among average users. Or did it?
It’s worth noting that the onslaught of negative user ratings came only a few hours after the game’s release. But even before that, it had already gained a negative traction after the plot of the sequel leaked online. Fans of the first game simply were not happy about certain events that transpire, as well as the addition of LGBTQ+ characters that they felt weren’t crucial to the overarching plot. So naturally, users took to the internet to air out their criticism, some of whom admitted to never even completing or playing the game.
This is what review bombing media content looks like. A group of people flooding a title with negative ratings and reviews with the goal of hurting its popularity and sales. Some even go as far as to create multiple accounts to further drag ratings down, or campaign for others to do the same on internet forums.
There’s not a singular reason for review bombing. Some internet users are just trolls who like to disrupt, but most of the time, media get review bombed because the audience doesn’t agree with certain features, content, or creators.
It could be because of changes the developers made, such as a death of a popular character, or the addition of narratives they don’t like. Internet users cite reasons like “promoting LGBTQ+ propaganda” to criticize a title or call developers terms such as “social justice warriors” when storylines don’t align with their personal ideologies. Those are the exact reasons that motivated the review bombing of The Last of Us Part II—as well as the review bombing of many other films, TV shows (even certain episodes), and video games.
Movies, Shows, and Games That Became the Target of Review Bombing
The Last Of Us Part II is hardly the first video game—or media content—to be targeted by review bombing. And it won’t be the last.
The term was first seen in a 2008 article on the video game Spore. Users didn’t like the digital rights management (DRM) software built into the game that required authentication every few days. Gamers considered this a big inconvenience and left 1-star reviews online. “Review-bombing Amazon is a particularly nasty way of getting the point across as well; casual gamers who aren’t aware of this campaign may not bother to read the content of the reviews and only assume the game isn’t very good,” reads the Ars Technica article on the game’s negative reception.
To the credit of long-term fans of the video game, the additional feature left much to be desired. Their complaints were valid in that they were criticizing a feature of the game that made it less enjoyable than it could have been. But since the early use of the term, review bombing has become even nastier as it is mostly motivated by hateful views rather than valid critiques.
I can name a few movie titles that were hurt by review bombing because female characters were centered, specifically Ghostbusters (2016) and the latest Star Wars trilogy. The trailer to Ghostbusters was, for a time, the most disliked trailer on YouTube and one of the most disliked videos ever. Some people defended their dislike for a film that hasn’t even been released because they thought the original didn’t need to be changed. But comments like, “When are people going to learn that women aren’t funny?” and “Ghostbusters – Fat D*ke Edition” made it abundantly clear that the hatred was coming from a place of misogyny. Some commenters on YouTube were even applauding reaching half a million dislikes and prompted others to raise the number (when the feature was still up).
Similarly, the Star Wars trilogy starring Daisy Ridley as Rey was met with backlash because of her gender. Not only did fans disprove of a strong female character, not a damsel in distress, they also weren’t too happy about the inclusion of John Boyega, who is Black, in a leading role. Up until now, many Star Wars releases are targeted by review bombing because of blatant sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and racism. Obi-Wan was subjected to it specifically when the show announced that actress Moses Ingram would be joining the cast. Fans were disappointed and left many racist and negative reviews that the show was breaking the lore, even after Disney implored fans to “[not] choose to be a racist”.
If you think review bombing isn’t coming from a place of hate, just look at the critical reviews of the third of episode of The Last of Us as compared to its fan ratings on iMDB. A large chunk of the user rating (28.6%) rated it a 1 out of 10 for a period of time. The reason? The episode tells the love story of Bill and Frank. Even though their relationship was never confirmed in the game version, it was heavily implied that they were romantic partners. The HBO adaptation expanded on the relationship of the two characters and gave us one of the best episodes in the history of television.
However, many viewers were blatantly homophobic in their response to the episode and resorted to review bombing it on IMDB. The top 1-star comment reads, “I am done with this show as with any that is more concerned with pushing politics than providing good writing and good story.”
Is There A Solution to Review Bombing?
Unfortunately, there are way too many movies, TV shows, and video games that were subjected to review bombing to name. It has become the internet’s toxic recourse to spreading hate for media content that don’t agree with their personal ideologies that are, oftentimes, more harmful than the thing they’re opposing.
But review sites have tried to put a stop to this toxic internet phenomenon in the past. Some of their solutions have been simple but effective to an extent. For instance, Rotten Tomatoes introduced the Verified Audience score category to their ratings, which is still in place today. You can choose to view the critic ratings, as well as audience ratings, which are divided into verified viewers—those who are confirmed to have bought a ticket to the movie, for example—and all audiences, which includes non-verified viewers. It’s a step they’ve taken to ensure that people who use the site actually sat through a film or a TV show before leaving a review. And it has helped reduce review bombing on the site.
Metacritic doesn’t have that verification process, but they did make a policy change in 2020, specifically when reviewing games. Users can’t rate until after 36 hours of the game’s release. This was their response to the review bombing that happened to The Last of Us Part II, so they can weed out the users who rate video games without possibly having even played it. On Steam, they display additional information on user reviews, such as the amount of time the player has spent on the game.
So far, these have been helpful in curbing review bombing on select sites. But there’s always a new place for disgruntled fans (or non-fans) to spread hate for a movie, TV show, or video game that doesn’t align with their beliefs.
For people who are just looking for genuine reviews on a title, there’s no harm in reading what average users and critics say online—but it’s important to look beyond the rating and read what the reviews actually say. The good thing about trolls and hateful people is that they’re not subtle about their prejudice, especially because they can hide behind anonymous avatars online. So it’s fairly easy to tell when a landslide of negative ratings is a sign of a review bombing campaign.