You may recall that fans were somewhat divided over The Last Jedi, the eighth installment in the theoretically limitless main throughline of the cinematic universe known collectively as Star Wars. In fact, the hatred some nerds felt for the film was deeply pleasing for those like myself, especially as these fanboys spent months of their lives calling for a remake and tweeting empty threats about boycotting the franchise.
But as vocal as the seething detractors were, how many actually existed? What motivated their dedication to the cause of de-canonizing the movie? A new research paper, amazingly titled “Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the Strategic Politicization of Pop Culture Through Social Media Manipulation,” offers fascinating answers to these questions and more. In the study, media/technology scholar Morten Bay, a PhD in information studies, shows that roughly half of the criticism directed at Last Jedi director Rian Johnson came 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.” In other words, no one who actually gave a shit about plot holes, Luke Skywalker’s fate or how “the Force” is depicted.
Now, you may wonder why this agglomeration of far-right noisemakers — among them some Russian bots, Bay writes — would jump into a fandom to stoke their latest schism. At first, it’s hard to imagine the intent; it’s not as if you can really bring down the Star Wars juggernaut as a whole. And that’s the rub: The Last Jedi was a red herring, no more than a vehicle for white male resentment. The negative comments came from a minority that amplified itself in an effort to politicize a piece of pop culture we tend not to regard as relevant to real-life politics, even if, as Bay points out, George Lucas’ original trilogy exhibited “left-of-center” values. With the studio mounting a concerted effort at improved representation for women and ethnic minorities in the sequels as the cloud of Trump’s presidency poisoned the conversation around this exact sort of issue, it was easy to gin up a conspiracy theory of “social justice warriors” ruining entertainment.
The upshot, Bay writes, is an influence campaign with a striking resemblance to Russia’s 2016 election meddling strategy: “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,” a goal shared by the alt-right and the Russian Federation, he concludes. This not only makes us look more polarized than we are — a large majority of viewers were either satisfied with The Last Jedi or non-committal, much in contrast to the idea that a significant faction hated it — but might have an emboldening effect on the actual fans expressing toxic forms of displeasure, causing them to believe their side has more support than it really does. “Regardless of motive, almost all negative fans express the belief that they are in the majority and that most Star Wars fans dislike The Last Jedi,” Bay notes. You can draw a parallel with Trump voters who think he has a strong mandate to do whatever he wants — despite losing the popular vote by 3 million.
Just by looking at response Bay has gotten on Twitter, you can see the effect:
Where things may get even more tangled is in the creation of networks aligned against recent Star Wars output — but also, perhaps, aligned on right-wing ideology. Bay writes that Russian troll accounts, for instance, will pose as “sources of information or news outlets” and “nudge” others to follow them. Potentially, then, a genuinely angry Star Wars fan could follow a troll who attacked The Last Jedi and be fed a steady drip of propaganda. Given that misinformation can take hold without a puppet-master pulling the strings (the paper cites the anti-vaccination movement, which thrives on junk science and exaggeration apart from any foreign influence), disinformation from a source that has a covert agenda is rather dangerous. Bay doesn’t suggest that an affinity between alienated Star Wars fans and the bots/trolls mobilized to agree with them could affect the former’s political leanings, but it seems a very likely outcome.
And now some of those folks are offended at being called bots. Not that anyone did so.
All of which is to say, don’t be surprised if you have a Star Wars obsessive in your life “suddenly” start retweeting alt-right weirdos and saying they shouldn’t have deleted Alex Jones’ account. I mean, it’s not like they haven’t dressed up as a stormtrooper before.