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Khashoggi murder film ‘The Dissident’ targeted by suspicious negative reviews

Users flood Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb with negative comments about documentary, in apparent troll campaign
The film investigates the brutal murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018 (The Dissident official website)

A critically acclaimed documentary about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi appears to have been the target of a coordinated campaign to post negative comments and ratings.

The Dissident, which was released on 8 January, investigates the brutal murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, a Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist who was killed by Saudi agents after entering the kingdom’s embassy in Istanbul in October 2018. 

The film was directed and written by Bryan Fogel, who has previously won an Academy Award for Best Documentary for his film Icarus, which shed light on state-sponsored doping in Russia. 

The Dissident received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and has since received universal acclaim from critics. 

'Based on recent analysis, it appears that there have been deliberate attempts to manipulate the movie’s audience score'

- Tiyson Reynolds, Rotten Tomatoes

On the popular film review site Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 97 percent "fresh" rating on the "Tomatometer", based on 57 positive reviews out of 59 aggregated from film critics around the world. Among the site's “top critics”, the film received 19 “fresh” ratings, and no “rotten” ratings. 

However, the “audience score”, which aggregates comments and reviews from ordinary viewers, is just 68 percent. 

This low rating is a result of 500 bad reviews that flooded the site on 12 January, according to the Washington Post, taking the overall percentage significantly down from a high of above 95 percent.

Filmmakers told the Post they believed this was an act orchestrated by trolls operating on behalf of the Saudi government to create a false sense of popular disapproval of the film. 

“Based on recent analysis, it appears that there have been deliberate attempts to manipulate the movie’s audience score,” Rotten Tomatoes spokesperson Tiyson Reynolds said. 

He said that the site would remove manipulative ratings from the system, however the audience score remains at 68 percent based on 2,387 audience reviews.

Last week, Fogel told Variety that Netflix and other streaming giants were afraid to distribute The Dissident

“These global media conglomerates are aiding and abetting and silencing films that take on subject matter like this despite the fact their audiences want content like this,” he said. 

“The decision not to acquire 'The Dissident' had nothing to do with its critical reviews, had nothing to do with a global audience’s appetite to watch a docu-thriller, but had everything to do with business interests and politics and, who knows, perhaps pressure from the Saudi government.”

In 2019, Netflix caused controversy after it removed an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia after it heavily criticised the kingdom’s policies. 

IMDb flooded by suspicious comments 

As well as Rotten Tomatoes, there was also suspicious activity on the film database IMDb. 

Although the film holds a relatively positive 8.2 rating based on 9,821 audience reviews, scores of negative user comments and ratings have flooded the site in recent days. 

A user named mesh-60618 commented: “Documentary films are always based on reality which I didn't see in this one. I didn't see anything about Khashoggi on [sic] this documentary. Even his family didn't participate. I'm not gonna recommend it to anyone.”

The similarly named mesh-41593 said: “The documentary was from one side only which is not giving everything of it. It seems like it is written from someone's point of view which made it look like a one side story.”

Middle East researcher and academic Marc Owen Jones, who has written extensively about Saudi disinformation networks, noticed negative ratings on IMDb as early as January 2020, when the film had just premiered at Sundance and was not available yet for public viewing. 

“I do not know if [the negative reviews] will have an impact, but it may in the future when people look back and reflect on the film,” Jones told Middle East Eye. 

“It may also make people think twice about watching the film, or raise some doubts about its accuracy. Campaigns like this are designed to muddy the waters, not be 100 percent effective.”

The vast majority of the negative comments came from accounts with a short first name, followed by five digits after a hyphen. While this may be coincidental, it could suggest coordinated activity.

imdb the dissident comments

Nawaf-18688 said: “There are many accusations and suspicions, and there is no conclusive evidence, and this is contrary to the direction of the documentaries,” while sa-50457 believes: “It would be better if it showed the different narratives of both sides instead of being biased.”

This wouldn’t be the first time a coordinated pro-Saudi propaganda has spread online. The kingdom has an army of bots and trolls on social media called "the flies", which is known to have been set up by Saud al-Qahtani, who served as a close aide to the crown prince before being implicated in Khashoggi's murder.

The negative reviews all raised very similar talking points, calling the film “one-sided” and lamenting the lack of participation from Khashoggi’s family. 

The user hind-09851 commented: “This movie forgot the main character, and the others try to be heroes in this incomplete story, and none of the Khashoggi family members appeared in this movie.”

The film did include the participation of the murdered journalist's fiancee Hatice Cengiz, who has consistently held the Saudi government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, responsible for his death. In October she filed a civil lawsuit against the crown prince and several officials, holding them responsible. 

Khashoggi’s son Salah “pardoned” his father’s killers last year, in an announcement that was rejected by Cengiz and called “a parody of justice” by UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard.

Earlier this week, US President Joe Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence vowed to release an unclassified report on who directed the murder of Khashoggi - a legally binding congressional request that the Trump administration has defied for the past year.