I love a lot of HBO shows and over the years I’ve covered many of them, with both praise and criticism. I loved about five seasons of Game Of Thrones, disliked one, was deeply frustrated with one, and mostly hated the last. But I never thought that the powers-that-be at HBO might send fake Twitter trolls after me on social media to try to discredit my negative reviews.
Turns out, that’s exactly what HBO has been doing. Honestly, the unethical behavior of HBO leadership unearthed in this story is beyond atrocious and I’m still shocked beyond words. Buckle up for one of the weirdest, most outrageous entertainment industry stories of the year. It’s a real doozy.
The news comes by way of Rolling Stone and an ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit by a former HBO employee who was tasked with creating fake Twitter accounts to cast shade at critics like Alan Sepinwall and Kahtryn VanArendonk.
When VanArendonk tweeted critically about Perry Mason prior to that rebooted series airing on HBO, HBO CEO Casey Bloys was not happy.
Bloys was annoyed, according to text messages reviewed by Rolling Stone, and sent VanArendonk’s tweet to Kathleen McCaffrey, HBO’s senior vice president of drama programming. “Maybe a Twitter user should tweet that that’s a pretty blithe response to what soldiers legitimately go through on [the] battlefield,” he texted. “Do you have a secret handle? Couldn’t we say especially given that it’s D-Day to dismiss a soldier’s experience like that seems pretty disrespectful … this must be answered!”
Bloys was serious. “Who can go on a mission,” he asked McCaffrey, according to the messages, adding that they needed to find a “mole” at “arms length” from the HBO executive team. “We just need a random to make the point and make her feel bad.”
Eventually, Bloys landed on a rebuttal to VanArendonk, according to the messages: “A somewhat elitist take. Is there anything more traumatic for men (and now women) than fighting in a war. Sorry if that seems too convenient for you.”
Bloys and McCaffrey texted further about creating a “secret army” of Twitter trolls to fire back at TV critics. It’s the most outrageously insane thing I’ve read about in the entertainment industry all year.
For one thing, as a critic I can tell you that we get plenty of flak from regular fans and trolls without HBO (or any other company’s) support. I am routinely shouted at by fans of such masterpieces as Fear The Walking Dead for daring—daring!—to say anything critical of that (abysmal, truly awful) show. AMC doesn’t need to direct employees to come after me. Fans will happily oblige.
In any case, the lawsuit is being brought by former HBO employee Sully Temori against HBO; McCaffrey; Francesca Orsi, HBO’s head of drama; Abel “the Weeknd” Tesfaye and two other producers for The Idol. Rolling Stone has verified metadata that proves the texts are real and associated with tweets from fake accounts, some created by Temori who was directed by his bosses to go after critics.
From the report:
McCaffrey had come to Temori to create the fake accounts in June 2020, explaining Bloys was “obsessed with Twitter” and “always wants to pick a fight on Twitter,” according to the messages. “He always texts me asking me to find friends to reply … is there a way to create a dummy account that can’t be traced to us to do his bidding,” McCaffrey asked, before passing off Bloys’ missives to Temori several more times.
Temori created an account with the name Kelly Shepherd, and would reply to tweets from critics like Alan Sepinwall thusly:
After the NYT’s critic James Poniewozik tweeteed that The Nevers “feels like watching a show that someone has mysteriously deleted 25% of the scenes from,” Bloys told McCaffrey via text message: Maybe our friend needs to say what a shock it is that two middle aged white men (he and [Times TV critic Mike] Hale) are shitting on a show about women.”
McCaffrey’s response: “I *$!@ing hate these people, yes.”
Soon after, the Kelly Shepherd account tweeted “how shocking that two middle aged white men (you & Hale) are shitting on a show about women……”
A Very Stupid Mission
HBO told Rolling Stone that it “intends to vigorously defend against Mr. Temori’s allegations. We look forward to a full and fair resolution of this dispute. In the meantime, we wish Mr. Temori, a former HBO employee, well in his future endeavors.”
Unfortunately, the damage to HBO’s reputation has already been done.
To me, this is all so shocking and absurd because A) it’s completely unnecessary to force employees to create fake Twitter accounts to attack critics given that fans will do that vigorously for free and B) HBO has mostly excellent TV shows and has no real incentive to make such scandalous business decisions. Not every show will be a hit, but you take your lumps and keep putting out good material and critics will respond in kind. You can’t expect every critic to love every show and it’s just childish to respond this way. Deeply, deeply childish. (And hey, when I tweet this article now I’ll be wondering if the responses I get are from real people or HBO moles. What fun!)
Read the whole report to see the many ways Bloys and HBO have tried to shift the conversation online about their executives, programming and HBO as a company. It’s truly outrageous stuff, and everyone involved deserves every bit of shaming, disdain and finger-wagging the internet can provide. How embarrassing! How truly, truly embarrassing. Will wonders never cease?
Honestly I just can’t imagine what it must be like to be i a position of power and influence and still suffer an endlessly bruised ego and such very thin, thin skin. I love a lot of HBO shows—from Succession to Westworld to White Lotus and many, many more; HBO often brings the sharpest, highest quality programming on TV —but at this point you have to really wonder how that’s possible with leadership making these kind of calls behind the scenes. I’ve lost a ton of faith and trust in HBO today.