Some of the most contentious drama that took place during Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones didn’t happen on TV, but on Twitter.
As Jon Snow fumbled his way around Dragonstone, Twitter users took aim straight at HBO with a blunt hashtag: #NoConfederate.
For some people casually perusing their feed, the hashtag may have been confusing; on its surface, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Game of Thrones. But for others, it was simply the latest chapter in the controversy that’s been swirling for almost two weeks now around a new show HBO’s developing from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
On July 19, HBO announced that once Game of Thrones is over, the pair would be producing Confederate, “an alternate timeline where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union” — and where “slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” The network was apparently confident that such a premise would be more exciting than controversial, distributing a press release about the project even though few details had been finalized.
Instead, the criticism was swift and fierce. Fearing what Benioff and Weiss would do with such sensitive, ever-timely material, many spoke out against the very idea of the show, insisting that threading the needle on such an incredibly tricky premise — not to mention one with huge potential for real-world repercussions — would be near impossible, and they should just stop while they’re (marginally) ahead.
The protest grew loud enough for HBO to notice and scramble, sending Benioff, Weiss, and Confederate executive producers Malcolm and Nichelle Spellman to give a lengthy interview in which they promised Vulture they understood the gravity of the material they were taking on. Then, HBO’s programming chief Casey Bloys acknowledged to reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour that in hindsight, announcing the show via a brief press release was maybe not the smartest strategy.
But HBO’s damage control didn’t do much to convince those who’d already spoken out against the concept. In response, activist April Reign — who previously coined the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to protest a lack of diversity at the Academy Awards — coordinated a new Twitter protest, encouraging people to tweet #NoConfederate during the next episode of Game of Thrones.
The hashtag trended nationwide throughout Sunday evening’s broadcast, and is continuing to grow even now. As Reign wrote on Twitter when announcing the protest, she believes “the time to speak up is now, before the show has been written or cast. Before HBO invests too much money into Confederate.”
Despite HBO’s insistence that it’s well aware that Confederate’s subject matter is extraordinarily complicated and sensitive, Reign has argued that bringing a so-called “alternate timeline” to the screen is too potentially harmful to be worth trying in the first place:
That point has come up again and again. For many of the people protesting, one of the most unacceptable aspects of the series is the idea that HBO and Confederate’s creative team might treat white supremacy as some “alternate history,” even though it is persistently, searingly present today.
#NoConfederate - because as a Southern, the last thing I need is for Whites to see their wet dreams about slavery played out on this show.— Vilissa Thompson (@VilissaThompson) July 31, 2017
Even Bree Newsome — the activist who famously climbed a flagpole to take down South Carolina’s Confederate flag in 2015 — has joined in to voice her disappointment, writing a litany of tweets that sketched out the constant, ongoing disenfranchisement black Americans have faced before, during, and after the Civil War:
Now let's talk a bit why #NoConfederate is problematic in terms of imagining an alternate history: THE CONFEDERACY DIDN'T ACTUALLY LOSE.— Bree Newsome (@BreeNewsome) July 31, 2017
The hashtag quickly caught the attention of HBO, which issued yet another statement about Confederate on Sunday evening:
We have great respect for the dialogue and concern being expressed around Confederate. We have faith that [producers] Nichelle, Dan, David and Malcolm will approach the subject with care and sensitivity. The project is currently in its infancy so we hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see.
This “wait and see” statement is unlikely to sway many of its detractors, who have no interest in either waiting to give Confederate’s premise a chance or seeing a sci-fi Confederacy in action. It’s unlikely that the network will outright cancel the project, especially now that it’s garnered enough publicity that a preemptive flop would be particularly embarrassing. But Confederate’s entire creative team sure has its work cut out for it as it moves forward and tries to create a show with the kind of nuance, sensitivity, and awareness that a parallel-universe Confederacy requires.