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Graham: 'The Little Mermaid' and the mechanics of an internet controversy

When is a firestorm not a firestorm? Usually when it is online

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Halle Bailey, half of the sister duo Chloe x Halle, will star as Ariel in the upcoming adaptation of "The Little Mermaid."

For many, the first they heard about the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid" was the controversy surrounding the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live action remake of "The Little Mermaid." 

The controversy went something like this: people on the internet were reacting with dismay that Bailey, who is black, had been cast as Ariel, who in the 1989 Disney cartoon is white. Facebook groups were launched, as was a disapproving Twitter hashtag: #NotMyAriel. 

The coverage of the controversy trumped the story of the casting, and was picked up by news outlets worldwide. Pundits discussed it for days, and there was an inevitable backlash to the controversy. It's a familiar cycle that gets played out over and over again in today's media. The whole thing practically wrote itself.

But getting back to the root of the story: was there even a controversy in the first place? What do we define as controversy? And why does today's news cycle depend on controversy and feigned outrage?

The answers are plentiful, and none of them are good. 

There's a bit in Aziz Ansari's new Netflix special that addresses this very issue. He comments on the recent Pizza Hut story about the pizza that was delivered with the pepperonis in the shape of a swastika. He asks the audience what they thought about the story, and talks to one audience member about the news outlet where he saw the story — except there is no story, Ansari made the whole thing up. But it didn't stop a lot of people from weighing in and having an opinion on it. 

A cursory glance at the #NotMyAriel hashtag will reveal a lot of people complaining about the #NotMyAriel controversy, but not a whole lot of people complaining about the actual casting of Bailey. Those that were complaining were random users with low follower counts. Why were they being quoted?

Because it's easy. The internet, in many ways, has made the job of reporters incredibly simple. Type in a couple of keywords into a search field and you're likely to find exactly what it is you're looking for and boom, you've got your source.

It used to be that a reporter would have to go out and find people or pick up a phone and call someone to quote for a story, and that reporting took legwork. Now, social media has eliminated the hard part — also known as the work — and made the job incredibly quick and dirty. Which is how random internet users end up quoted as valid sources, and a few people typing words into a website ends up as a "controversy" splashed across the news.   

How do random internet users become valid sources? That comes down to resource-strapped newsrooms and the relaxing of traditional journalism rules in a digitally driven marketplace. And controversy — manufactured or not — gets clicks, and clicks are required to keep news operations, many of which have been gutted in the last two decades, in business. 

It gets worse. The internet users quoted as sources in these stories are often either Twitter trolls, whose express purpose is to stir up outrage online and beyond (it works!), or bots, programmed to rage at whatever topic will draw attention. The purpose of these bots is unclear: mass distraction? Something more nefarious? But they're only given attention — and therefore credibility — when quoted by lazy, click-chasing media outlets.   

That's the same reason you consistently see stories about online petitions calling for change in "Star Wars" movies or "Game of Thrones" episodes. People are signing petitions! It's a story! Valid or not — those things are very easy to digitally "sign," by the way — they're easy to report on, and they give the impression that many more people are behind a cause or invested in something than really are. 

And putting all that aside, if someone is upset about the casting of "The Little Mermaid," how is that news? It only becomes news if it is covered as news, and the media is culpable in blowing up non-stories into stories just for clicks. 

The media is in a precarious position, what with claims of Fake News and a certain President touting social media as more "important" and "powerful" than "the Fake News." But it needs to do better. Not every supposed controversy is real and not every story is worth reporting on, but covering it validates it in a way that keeps the machine churning.

And that machine belongs, in its current form, under the sea.