Forget the 2016 presidential election, Russia may have interfered in something far more serious: the discourse surrounding The Last Jedi, the Star Wars movie directed by Rian Johnson. A new study by researcher Morten Bay examines online discussion of the film and finds that on Twitter, the discourse was affected by “deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments,” including by possible Russian trolls.
In “Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation,” Bay collected and analyzed tweets that directly addressed Johnson and were sent over a period of eight months, beginning with the day of the movie’s European release. Bay found that just 21.9 percent of the 967 tweets he examined were negative, suggesting that the movie may not be nearly as divisive as the backlash made it seem. More disturbingly, Bay also found that of that more than half of the negative tweets may have come from “bots, trolls/sock puppets or political activists using the debate to propagate political messages supporting extreme right-wing causes and the discrimination of gender, race or sexuality.”
Before you take to Twitter to vent your own outrage over the study, you should know that Bay freely acknowledges that not every Last Jedi hater is a troll or a right-wing activist. “It is important to stress, of course, that there are also a substantial number of fans who simply think The Last Jedi is a bad film and who use social media to express their disappointment,” he writes. And Bay’s sample set means that the results may say more about fandom on Twitter than they do about Star Wars in particular, since “not all disappointed fans are Twitter users and not all disappointed fans go as far as tweeting directly at Rian Johnson in anger.” He notes that Russian trolls have also antagonized Comedy Central’s Midnight, Black Girl Nerds, and soccer fans.
Still, Bay’s findings indicate that the majority of users in his study who tweeted negatively about The Last Jedi also used racist, misogynistic, or homophobic language, and that a significant proportion seemed to be promoting an agenda:
A number of fans feel like Star Wars has been politicized by Lucasfilm and Disney, but since the political and ethical positions presented in the new films are consistent with older films, it is more likely that the polarization of the Trump era has politicized the fans. The divisive political discourse of the study period and the months leading up to it, has likely primed these fans with a particular type of political messaging that is in direct conflict with the values presented in The Last Jedi.
The presence of organized influence measures, i.e. bots, sock puppet and troll accounts, is further indications of attempts to manipulate Star Wars fans as part of a political persuasion tactic. This similarity to political influence campaigns on social media—domestic or foreign—is also underscored by the manner in which misinformation appears and (sometimes strategically) gets propagated. The same misinformation mechanisms as seen in the anti-vaccination controversy and the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. are present in the debate over The Last Jedi.
Johnson himself wrote on Monday that even before reading the study, its findings are consistent with his experience online. “And just to be totally clear: this is not about fans liking or not liking the movie,” he tweeted. “I’ve had tons of great talks with great fans online and off who liked and disliked stuff, that’s what fandom is all about. This is specifically about a virulent strain of online harassment.” That has not stopped the replies from turning into a chorus of “I’m not a Russian spy but The Last Jedi is garbage!!!!” but hey, that’s Twitter for you.
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