Published On: Tue, Oct 2nd, 2018

Study Shows Russian Bots Targeted The Last Jedi to Cause Chaos, and It Really Worked

Mark Hamill in Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017)

In 84 years, we’re still going to be debating whether Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a good take on the franchise or not, if this new study gives us anything to go on. Researcher Morten Bay released an academic paper called Weaponizing The Haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation, which shows that a huge amount of the hatred aimed at director Rian Johnson stemmed from Russian bots rather than real accounts.

His findings show “evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments. 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.”

So, we’re under attack not only on the democratic front, but in our pop culture discourse as well. That’s more than a little horrifying. And Bay’s data matches up as well. He analyzed tweets sent to Johnson, finding that about 21% were hate, and of that 21% nearly 50% of that was politically motivated and could stem from bots.

Perhaps the most horrifying thing is that this isn’t a Star Wars only event, as evidenced by the quote below:

“Star Wars fandom is not the only cultural or pop culture sphere in which these influence operations are conducted. In February 2018, NBC News published a data set of more than 200,000 tweets collected from accounts that Twitter deleted after ascertaining that they were Russian troll accounts and part of the influence operation (Popken, 2018). The data set clearly shows that the Russian trolls were not just spreading messages of a political nature but were using engagements in pop culture and related fandoms as either an alibi to distract from their other trolling activities, or to insert themselves in online social groups that they may not reach through pure political messaging.”

So where does this leave us? Where can we possibly go from here, knowing that this discourse is now taken over and framed by Russian bots and active political trolling? We can be aware, we can not engage with them, but there is no clear answer on how to make them go away. Of course, this isn’t just to blame on Russian trolls but also the American alt-right and certain dedicated segments of fans, who drove Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley off of Instagram and who have been harassing John Boyega since day one.

If they wanted to cause dissent, chaos, and division, they’ve more than reached their goal. Trying to navigate Star Wars fandom currently is a waking nightmare of people entrenched in their camps, aggressively subtweeting each other. It’s a polarized mess, wherein no one wins and no one’s behavior is above reproach.

When discussing the paper amongst TMS staffers, I made a snarky comment about how I’d never seen so many papers written trying to disprove the existence of haters, having been a hater in the past myself (I got somewhat better). Our brilliant opinion editor Vivian Kane replied: “My problem with so many people who didn’t like TLJ for non-racist reasons act like the racism and sexism in other haters doesn’t exist, like we’re making it up to persecute them. I’d have a lot more patience for people who just didn’t like the movie if they acknowledged the toxicity that exists around the franchise.”

She has a point. In fact, she hit the nail on the head. So many people who dislike the movie try to distance themselves from the racist and sexist vitriol that the bots and trolls are saying while not calling it out. It’s not necessarily the most fun, engaging with the toxicity, but we can’t pretend like the politicized discourse is something the people who liked the movie just throw out to discredit those who didn’t like the movie, but an actual state of the fandom union.

This is not to shame those who found the film to be deeply flawed and/or racist and sexist itself (despite having come around on the film as a whole, I don’t like how the film treated Finn or Poe based on characterization established in the first film), or say that they are in the wrong for disliking the film. I am also not saying that we should all engage with bots all the time because that would be incredibly draining and potentially dangerous. But we have to change the conversation, somehow.

Much of the damage has already been done where The Last Jedi is concerned. All that’s left is to try and build a better fandom and find a way to combat the bots so that they don’t dominate the discourse. How we do that remains to be seen.

(via The Hollywood Reporter; Image: Lucasfilm)

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