Back in February of this year, the Internet Movie Database shut down its message boards, as well as the function that allowed users to privately message one another on the site. These services were among the most popular featured on the site, but were evidently “no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide,” according to a statement put out by the company.
As I was not a member of the IMDB message boards myself, I cannot speak to whether or not they were subject to the same kinds of harassment and vitriolic hate speech as other recently shut down comments sections (if you want to read an article by someone who did frequent the boards and laments their passing, Paste Magazine has a very compelling one). But looking at the site from the outside leads me to believe that it wasn’t the message boards that were the problem. It’s the ratings system.
IMDB allows its users to review movies, both with a numerical score and with a longer written review; however, there’s no way to determine who a user is and whether or not they’ve actually seen the film, making it a popular protest platform for users with a political axe to grind. Before Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot was even released in 2016, it had already received upwards of 22,000 one-star ratings, mostly from male users (the website permits you to self-identify). The Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro and Nate Parker’s Birth Of A Nation also faced similar backlash, as well as racist comments on both Metacritic and IMDB.
And then there’s Christian Bale’s latest film, The Promise, which was briefly one of the ten worst-rated movies on IMDB despite the fact that it won’t be released until this weekend. Why? Because it takes place against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide, prompting Turkish message board dwellers and others online who deny such atrocities took place to flood the page with one-star reviews.
One the one hand, collectively leaving bad ratings on a film’s IMDB feels like a pretty milquetoast version of an organized harassment campaign — especially when compared to similar campaigns on Yelp, Amazon, Steam, or Goodreads, where poor scores do tend to affect sales. Anecdotally, I can’t think of a single person I know who’s based their decision to go see a movie solely on its IMDB score. A poor Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic score, perhaps, but these days it feels like IMDB exists to remind people who played what part in a movie, not to suggest what to go see next.
However! Just because no one goes to IMDB for movie reviews does not mean that vote brigading does not have any impact on a film. As Wired notes, a low score can still be devastating for indie filmmakers, especially if there’s no outwardly controversial elements that might explain why a group of reviewers would choose to gang up on a movie. And of course, any large, concentrated amount of bad reviews will end up causing a wave of articles about the mean Internet jerks who can’t play nice, which can have the adverse effect of boosting their message.
IMDB’s FAQ states that they “have several safeguards in place to automatically detect and defeat this type of ballot stuffing,” and that while they do not delete votes, they will weight them differently for “films whose content or subject matter are perceived as controversial or polarizing.” And yet, 9 time out of 10, it’s their rating system that garners all these bad headlines. Maybe it’s time to reorganize their system — or better yet, just get rid of it entirely.