For months before and after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi—a widely critically acclaimed movie and box office titan—what appeared to have been a small number of fans made it known they were rabid haters of the movie’s twist on the franchise’s formula. They were mad about everything, from plot holes and director Rian Johnson’s supposed disdain for the fandom to its focus on inclusivity, and they tried their best to make it all about them and how angry they were. Well, just as you might have thought, it turns out one force driving that backlash forward may have been disingenuous manipulation of social media sites like Twitter to promote political propaganda.
In a new paper (which has not yet gone through peer review) by USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Morten Bay, the researcher analyzed a selection of 967 tweets (each from a separate account) directed at director Rian Johnson over the period of December 13th, 2017, and July 20th, 2018. Using sentiment analysis to sort the tweets as positive, negative, or neutral, and then analyzing the accounts themselves, Bay found that “50.9% of those tweeting negatively [were] likely politically motivated or not even human.”
Bay wrote, “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. A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls.”
However, it also found that a very small minority of the tweets were, in fact, expressing negative sentiments towards Johnson or The Last Jedi: just 21.9 percent of the tweets (206) were critical, including bots. That number boiled down to just 10.5 percent when bot accounts are excluded. The Verge noted just 16 of the “bot/sock puppet/troll accounts” appeared to be linked to Russia, as defined by “comprehensive lists of criteria for detection of Russian trolls” identified from analysis of the alleged Russian operation to interfere in the 2016 elections:
Forty-four of those accounts were identified as bots, sock puppets, or trolls, and 61 of those 206 accounts showed a “clear political agend[a]” — a definition that includes real humans who tweet heavily about politics. Of the 44 bot/sock puppet/troll accounts, 33 were identified as trolls or sock puppets. Bay identified only 16 of those 33 as appearing to be Russian trolls. The trolls and bots are actually a minority of the accounts tweeting negative opinions about The Last Jedi.
So, to recap, only a small minority of people tweeting at Johnson were “bots, sock puppets, or trolls,” though a large proportion of the ones mad about The Last Jedi were. Of those, a handful were allegedly tied to Russian interference operations. (Note that the study only analyzed each originating account, not the number of tweets themselves, meaning that small number of accounts getting mad at Johnson could have been tweeting enough to appear to a layman as a horde. It also doesn’t consider accounts tweeting about The Last Jedi without tagging Johnson, which undoubtedly a far greater number.)
The small number of foreign trolls makes sense, even if the goal of the Russian Federation is “propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society,” as Bay wrote in the study. Riling up a handful of people angry about Star Wars is not exactly a major geopolitical win, and seeing the nefarious hands of the Kremlin at the root of every online scuffle is an unhealthy obsession.
But that still leaves us with the unfortunate implication that many others including far-right activists were eagerly engaging in an “organized attempt to disrupt and sow discord using the The Last Jedi controversy,” Bay wrote:
Because of the limitations on the data set and the less-than-comprehensive nature of this study, generalizing and extending this to the entire Star Wars fandom should happen with extreme caution. not all disappointed fans are Twitter users and not all disappointed fans go as far as tweeting directly at Rian Johnson in anger. The same can be said about fans who view the film positively, of course, which is why this study looks at a specific discourse situation as a measure of the situation. It is nonetheless noteworthy that a majority of the negativity stems from politicized accounts which are often part of an organized attempt to disrupt and sow discord using the The Last Jedi controversy.
Bay also pointed out that one objective of those people was likely “increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict.” Unfortunately for the haters, the vast majority of that coverage was critical of the obvious racism and misogyny at the core of the online harassment campaign, mocking ludicrous plans to “remake” The Last Jedi, or just gawking at cringeworthy stuff like this:
(For those wondering, yes, this comic does just go on and on like this.)
But The Last Jedi-hating misanthropes did cause a lot of harm along the way: They relentlessly harassed actress Kelly Marie Tran as well as other members of the cast and crew. Johnson tweeted on October 1st that the paper’s findings were “consistent with my experience online... This is specifically about a virulent strain of online harassment.”
Wired noted that this research has implications for fandom in general, namely that fans trying to fight back against toxic elements of the community may not realize they are “engaging with, and signal-boosting, a bot, or not calling out an actual bad actor”:
Yes, the people who don’t like a particular movie don’t all dislike it for the same reasons, but it gets harder and harder to have an honest discussion about cinematic quality, let alone cultural impact, when some of the speakers are just there to throw kerosene on a flame war. And when that happens, when it’s impossible to know which sentiments are real and what motivates the people sharing them, discourse crumbles.
In other words, it’s another reminder that social media often makes it difficult to have any constructive conversation around an issue at all, and verges on the impossible when the other side is being amplified by bad-faith political actors. But there’s at least one solution, which is refusing to play on the haters’ chosen battlegrounds and by their rules. In an essay in the New York Times, Tran hit back at the online harassment on her own terms, refusing to be marginalized:
I want to live in a world where children of color don’t spend their entire adolescence wishing to be white. I want to live in a world where women are not subjected to scrutiny for their appearance, or their actions, or their general existence. I want to live in a world where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings.
This is the world I want to live in. And this is the world that I will continue to work toward.
The full study is available for download on ResearchGate.