The debate surrounding Star Wars: The Last Jedi is nothing new, so we’re not going to waste time regurgitating it here. Some people love it, others hate it and it’s okay to have whatever opinion you want on it because at the end of the day, it’s just a movie.
Still, the wider discussion that has taken place since the film’s release last December has had a profound effect not just on Star Wars fandom, but the idea of pop culture ownership and whether or not creators have an obligation to the people who engage with their work. No one knows about the polarizing effects of The Last Jedi better than the film’s writer/director Rian Johnson, who has had all sorts of hate (and love!) directed at him through social media over the past nine months or so. But what if a significant portion of the hate directed at Johnson wasn’t authentic, but rather a weaponized attack orchestrated by Russian Twitter accounts? It seems ridiculous but a new study finds that, well … that’s exactly what happened.
In an academic paper released this week titled “Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation”, researcher Morten Bay examined a sampling of 967 tweets (one per account) sent to Rian Johnson over a period of six months. After analyzing the language used in the tweets and the qualities of the accounts tweeting them, Bay came to the conclusion that approximately 50% of criticism directed at Rian Johnson “was political trolling, some of it likely from Russia.” Even more interestingly, authentic haters of the film only made up a small minority of the tweets.
Here's my paper (final draft) on politicization of #StarWars fandom & #TheLastJedi, accepted for pub. in First Monday. It shows ~50% of criticism directed @rianjohnson was political trolling, some of it likely from Russia. Also shows haters=small minority. https://t.co/fFGSxJToi5 pic.twitter.com/BUCJLpl0FI
— Morten Bay, Ph.D. and stuff (@mortenbay) October 1, 2018
The tweets were first divided into three categories: positive, negative, and neutral. A total of 206 tweets (21.9%) ended up in the negative column, and these were further divided into the following categories: 11 tweets from bots; 33 from sock puppet or troll accounts; 61 that were driven by a political agenda and 101 (10.5% of the total) from demonstrably real people with a non-political reason for disliking the film. In other words, over half of the negative tweets were “politically motivated or not even human.”
Based on the findings in the present study, it is not fair to generalize and paint all of the The Last Jedi detractors as alt-right activists, racists or misogynists. However, the findings above show that a majority of the negatively-poised users included in the study do express such sentiments, either in The Last Jedi-related tweets or in other tweets on their accounts. These identity-based political values combine with traditional party politics and issue-based politics to represent a politicization of Star Wars critique which is found in more than half of the negative accounts in this study.
Furthermore, Bay discovered that 16 of the selected accounts exhibited multiple characteristics (verbiage, account activity patterns, etc.) shared by the types of Russian troll accounts that “hacked” the 2016 US election. Some of these were even among the accounts that were later deleted by Twitter for that reason and that all of them were anti-The Last Jedi in some way. It’s not clear how hating a Star Wars movie benefits Russia but Bay has some ideas:
The likely objective of these measures is increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict, thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society. Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the U.S. alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation. The results of the study show that among those who address The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson directly on Twitter to express their dissatisfaction, more than half are 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.
Bay elaborates further by pointing out that The Last Jedi isn’t much more progressive in its politics than other Star Wars films and argues that the reason the film caused such a backlash among conservative viewers is because those same viewers had become more politicized themselves in the Trump era and had never really engaged with the politics of Star Wars films previously.