HBO Bosses Used ‘Secret’ Fake Accounts to Troll TV Critics

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In June 2020, Casey Bloys, HBO’s then-president of original programming, needed someone to “go on a mission.”

Bloys — who was named HBO’s CEO and chairman in October 2022 — was irked by a tweet from Vulture TV critic Kathryn VanArendonk, who had some thoughts about Perry Mason, HBO’s series starring Matthew Rhys as a private detective turned defense attorney in 1930s Los Angeles.

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The remake of the original 1960s show carves out an origin story for Mason, showing flashes of him serving in World War I, which VanArendonk felt was weak storytelling. Days before the series aired on the platform (VanArendonk seemingly had a screener for review), she subtweeted the series. “Dear prestige TV,” she wrote, “Please find some way to communicate male trauma besides showing me a flashback to the hero’s memories of trench warfare.”

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.”

The exchange was one of at least six instances between June 2020 and April 2021 in which Bloys and McCaffrey discussed using what they called a “secret army” to fire back at several TV critics on Twitter (now known as X) as well as anonymous commenters on articles about HBO programming, according to text exchanges reviewed by Rolling Stone. In this case, the two decided not to hit back at VanArendonk online. But in numerous instances, the HBO execs did just that, trolling the television critics with snarky responses from a fake Twitter account — and dropping pro-HBO comments on trade publication stories.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 12: Zendaya and Casey Bloys attend HBO / HBO Max Emmy Nominees Reception at San Vicente Bungalows on September 12, 2022 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO/HBO MAX)
Zendaya and Bloys attending the HBO/HBO Max Emmy Nominees Reception at San Vicente Bungalows on Sept. 12, 2022, in West Hollywood.

(Rolling Stone reviewed the metadata associated with the messages, and verified their authenticity by linking the sender of the messages to a phone number registered to McCaffrey. What’s more, in four of the six cases, the language of the texts is an exact match for the language from the anonymous accounts.)

HBO did not dispute the legitimacy of the messages when approached for comment by Rolling Stone. In a statement, an HBO spokesperson said it would not “comment on select exchanges between programmers and errant tweets.” VanArendonk confirmed she wrote the tweet but declined to comment further.

The messages are part of a trove of material being prepared for a previously unreported wrongful-termination lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in July by former HBO staffer Sully Temori against HBO; McCaffrey; Francesca Orsi, HBO’s head of drama; as well as Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and two producers for The Idol.

The lawsuit alleges Temori — who joined HBO in 2015, working as a temp until becoming an executive assistant in 2017, then working on The Idol in August 2021 until he was laid off in October 2021 — was harassed and faced retaliation and discrimination after disclosing a mental health diagnosis to his bosses. He also was allegedly asked to perform menial tasks not related to his work duties, such as creating fake online accounts to respond to critics. In a response to Temori’s lawsuit, lawyers for HBO requested a judge dismiss the complaint, and said HBO denies “each and every allegation.” In a statement to Rolling Stone, HBO said 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.”

“Casey is looking for a tweeter … he’s mad at Alan Sepinwall. Can our secret operative please tweet at Alan’s review: ‘Alan is always predictably safe and scared in his opinions.’ And then we have to delete this chain right? Omg I just got scared lol.”

When approached for comment about the lawsuit and the messages, Temori’s attorney, Michael Martinez, tells Rolling Stone that the texts serve as an example of the “very petty” company culture that eventually turned on his client. “First and foremost, I think [this lawsuit] is about HBO’s culture and how it fosters a dynamic of ongoing harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” Martinez says. “They joke about people outside of HBO, they joke about people within HBO.… You suffer through some bullying until you can’t suffer anymore.”

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.

Martinez says Temori created a fake Twitter account to comply with his bosses’ requests, and “like many young employees starting out on their career, it was very important to Sully to not only perform at a high level, but to seek opportunities where he could showcase his acumen and build credibility for the possibility of creating long-term success at HBO and esteem from his higher-ups.”

In April 2021, The Nevers premiered and became a sore spot for Bloys after critics largely panned the Joss Whedon steampunk-fantasy series. This time, the target of Bloys’ ire was Rolling Stone chief TV critic Alan Sepinwall for his 2 ½ -star review. “Casey is looking for a tweeter … he’s mad at Alan Sepinwall,” McCaffrey texted Temori, referring to Bloys. “Can our secret operative please tweet at Alan’s review: ‘Alan is always predictably safe and scared in his opinions.’ And then we have to delete this chain right? Omg I just got scared lol.”

That day, a newly created account under the name of Kelly Shepherd, a self-described Texas mom and herbalist, replied to Sepinwall’s tweet about his review, repeating the sentiment McCaffrey expressed.

The account’s profile picture appears to be a stock photo used across a number of international business websites — and the handful of tweets from Shepherd’s account are all directed at critics. (Temori’s attorney confirmed Temori made the Kelly Shepherd account to comply with his bosses’ requests.)

When New York Times chief TV critic James Poniewozik tweeted that The Nevers “feels like watching a show that someone has mysteriously deleted 25% of the scenes from,” Bloys sent the tweet to McCaffrey, according to the messages. “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,” Bloys wrote. McCaffrey responded: “I fucking hate these people, yes.”

The Kelly Shepherd account then tweeted to Poniewozik, writing, “How shocking that two middle aged white men (you & Hale) are shitting on a show about women…….” (Hale declined to comment; Poniewozik did not return a request for comment.)

McCaffrey hit up Temori a few days later, again for another Sepinwall review in Rolling Stone, according to the texts, this time for his 3-star review of Mare of Easttown. “His highness needs another one,” McCaffrey wrote. “We need our friend to call out Alan for Mare.” Bloys allegedly wanted the troll account to post, “Alan missed on Succession and totally misses here because he is busy virtue signaling.” Later that day, the Shepherd account posted the exact message.  (When approached for comment by Rolling Stone, Sepinwall said, “I’m surprised HBO would even bother with this.”)

It wasn’t just critics’ opinions that Bloys paid attention to. He would also fixate on anonymous commenters on Deadline articles about HBO programming and in July 2020, Bloys needed another stealthy poster after HBO’s shock decision to cancel Run. The rom-com thriller — produced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Vicky Jones, and starring Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson — had just finished its first season and received positive reviews from critics.

The CEO was upset with an anonymous user on a Deadline article about the show’s cancellation who criticized his leadership. “Wasn’t a good show and harshly unveils Bloys-era cynicism of HBO development. Try making a show that can actually inspire people–great TV doesn’t have to be ugly,” the user wrote.

“How dare someone write that!!” Bloys texted McCaffrey, according to the messages. “I want to say something along the lines of ‘lol ok they are just counting their Emmys’ or something like that!?” Later he suggested, “Maybe we say we must have passed on their development and they are bitter?”

Days after the Run post, Bloys once again needed help. The announcement of Bridget Everett’s new comedy series Somebody Somewhere was receiving “mean comments” on another Deadline article.

“Can our friend post,” Bloys asked, according to the texts. “Someone actually says we went downhill after [HBO’s former president of programming Michael] Lombardo left! Please have them post, ‘Hi David Levine! HBO seems just fine thanks!’”(Levine was HBO’s EVP and co-head of drama before joining Anonymous Content as its president of television in 2019.) Hours later, Bloys’ wording was posted verbatim to the comment section.

A few other anonymous comments popped up. “[Former HBO CEO Richard] Plepler was 2000’s, the future is Bloys,” a second anonymous account wrote. “Remember how we just got Westworld, Leftovers, Watchmen, Succession, Euphoria, etc. HBO has been, and will always be fire,” a third posted.

The messages provide a rare peek behind the scenes of television’s upper brass and executives’ concerns around how audiences react to online chatter about content. In the ever increasingly anonymized digital age, it’s a growing suspicion that PR firms and even individual directors have used troll and bot accounts and other methods to combat lackluster reviews, turn the tide of conversation, drum up support for a social media campaign, or in this instance, be petty.

A September report from Vulture suggested a PR firm had gamed Rotten Tomatoes’ system to boost a client’s movie rating, successfully changing its “rotten” score to “fresh.” Rolling Stone found a suspiciously high number of accounts in India giving Sam Levinson and the Weeknd’s The Idol show 10-star reviews on IMDb and an influx of new users leaving glowing reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. And two reports commissioned by Warner Bros. reportedly found that 13 percent of accounts behind the push to release director Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League were fake.

The fake accounts and petty tweets are a small part of a wider lawsuit Temori is bringing against HBO and its executives, Temori’s attorney Martinez says, alleging that Temori was harassed by his superiors and faced retaliation and discrimination over a mental health diagnosis.

In one instance, the lawsuit claims Orsi had Temori sit on the floor of her office and babysit rescue kittens while she took various work calls and joked to others that Temori was playing with the cats “to improve his mental health.” Some of the harassment was specific to Temori’s sexual orientation, the lawsuit claims, with one HBO employee allegedly slapping Temori’s butt, blowing kisses, and “commenting about personal and sexual matters.”

When Temori began to push back against some of the treatment he was experiencing, Martinez and the lawsuit allege that HBO executives made Temori believe he was being offered a better career opportunity with a role as a script coordinator on The Idol in August 2021. On set, the lawsuit alleges Temori faced similar discriminatory and harassing behavior from the Weeknd and some The Idol producers. But by October, he was terminated. “Higher executives at HBO in the department he was working were pushing this position on him — that they were doing him a favor,” Martinez says. “What he discovered is it was more likely an opportunity for HBO to rid itself of him because it put him in a space where it was easier to terminate or eliminate his position.”

The fake accounts are indicative of a larger culture within HBO, attorney Martinez adds: “Our allegations are that these individuals said things to him and treated him in such a disparate manner that they were harassing and discriminatory. It was just unwelcome conduct. To put it plainly, it put him in a pretty bad place.”

It resulted in Temori feeling compelled to bring a lawsuit after his experience with the company that saw him ejected from an industry he always wanted to be a part of. “The purpose of the lawsuit is to correct conduct,” Martinez says. “We’re seeking to make sure HBO does the right thing now and in the future.”

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