I’ll start by getting one thing straight: the latest stand-up comedy special by Amy Schumer, who’s referred to as “filthy kike,” “fat Jewess” and “filthy Jewess whore” by Nazi websites gaining traction under the alt-right political movement, is not particularly good.
Much of the hour-long Leather Special, which debuted on Netflix in early March, feels like untested material, like Schumer hasn’t played a comedy club in years and forgot how to craft a punchline. Her jokes feel bombastic and self-indulgent.
That said, I still laughed more than a handful of times. It’s bad, but not one-star-out-of-five bad—yet as of March 14, more than 700 of 876 Netflix reviews would have told you otherwise.
The Netflix algorithm determined an average rating of one and a half stars, leading numerous publications—from the comparatively less biased Yahoo and Fox News to the pointedly biased Breitbart and Federalist—to briskly report how Schumer’s fans have turned on her, and The Leather Special is a dud.
If any of those journalists had done more research, as Megh Wright did for comedy-news site Splitsider, they would have found a deluge of posts on the Reddit fan forum for Donald Trump urging Trump supporters, misogynists, alt-right believers and Nazis alike to tank Schumer’s ratings. (I acknowledge these are different people with different values, but in dogpiles like these it’s honestly too hard to distinguish them.)
And so the special’s score plunged with unprecedented speed—few Netflix stand-up specials garner as many reviews so rapidly, indicating something askew—and the media reported it all as if it Schumer’s fans really were voting en masse, instead of the manipulation of an aggressive political movement that has long despised the comedian’s influential brand of lefty feminism.
By March 15, Netflix overruled the algorithm, granting The Leather Special a four-star average despite more than 1,200 largely negative reviews, which I can only imagine they achieved by negating every one-star review on there—which itself seems a bit unfair, as I’m sure many of those were genuine expressions of disappointment, since the special is, to reiterate, not particularly good, and a four-star average is as misleading as one and a half stars. (I’d say two and a half feels right.)
The key takeaway here, so far as I can tell, is how Schumer’s fiasco brings to light the fragility of what many have long believed to be an objective, democratic Internet. Aggregation and data analysis are the cornerstones of major tech companies’ policies, particularly Google, whose “wisdom of the masses” philosophy backs everything from reviews on Google Maps to basic search-engine results.
In fact, those results are anything but democratic. They’re written only by those who participate, whether they’re fans recruited to boost a business’s five-star rating or anxious readers of opinions tailored to their preexisting beliefs—or, in more pernicious cases, scam artists who hire people to troll Google Maps, inserting the phone numbers of fake businesses to lead you away from genuine businesses and overcharge you obscene amounts. (This actually happens in the world of locksmiths, weirdly.)
In that light, Amy Schumer has come up against Netflix’s version of fake news – unsubstantiated bile invented by politically enraged people. People can and are gaming the system. Now Netflix, like Facebook and Google, needs to figure out a better way to handle what has become the Internet’s greatest existential problem: bias disguised as truth.
In the meantime, the best you can do is read and watch everything critically, research issues that matter, judge quality for yourself, pay for media you respect—and don’t believe anything you read on the Internet.