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Star Wars: The Last Jedi backlash fueled by bots, trolls and political activists, study finds

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One in five tweets studied was negative

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, looking at his helmet. Walt Disney Studios

Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson received a lot of backlash on Twitter for his entry in the Star Wars franchise. This brand of online rage campaign has become a familiar and predictable reaction to progressive entertainment. But a new study claims that up to 50 percent of The Last Jedi backlash may have come from bots, troll accounts and politically motivated activists.

Morten Bay, a research fellow at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Center for the Digital Future, recently published a study analyzing the wave of attacks directed at Johnson on Twitter following the release of his entry into the Star Wars canon. Bay’s report, “Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation,” focused on the period between Dec. 13, 2017, and July 20, 2018, wherein he collected “1,273 tweets tweeted directly at the director’s Twitter handle.” Bay then condensed those tweets down further, deciding to weed out a “series of several tweets expressing the same sentiment from the same account,” creating the “foundation for the account analysis to follow, since each user was now represented by one tweet.”

His research led to an intriguing discovery, finding that half of all negative tweets directed at Johnson were 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.”

209 of the 967 tweets Bay analyzed were negative — meaning about one in five fans were directly sending complaints or insults to Johnson. The rest were positive. It’s of those 209 tweets, however, that 50.9 percent were either politically motivated, trolls or bots.

Bay told Polygon that although he expected to find trolls in his research, the most fascinating discovery was how many of the negative comments came from people who generally didn’t care about Star Wars.

“A majority of the accounts in this category would tweet frequently and positively about party-based politics, e.g. about President Trump and his administration or retweet supporters of the president or the president’s own tweets,” Bay wrote in his study. “Some were less focused on politics of party or specific issues and more on identity politics, posting anti-feminist or anti-homosexuality messages, and tweets of a racist nature were also frequent among the accounts in this category.”

The majority of people who sent negative complaints were trying to push their own political agenda, and push back against a perceived ideology, Bay found.

“A majority of the accounts in the Political Agenda category tweeted antagonistically about ‘SJW’ – Social Justice Warriors, often referring to an SJW ‘agenda’ not just put in place in the Star Wars universe by Rian Johnson, Lucasfilm by way of CEO Kathleen Kennedy, and Disney, but also in American society by liberals and left-wing activists,” Bay wrote.

It’s something he didn’t expect, but after analyzing his research, isn’t surprised by.

“We’re just seeing the pop culture groupings on social media getting invaded by the political discourse in the country,” Bay told Polygon during a phone interview. “When my study came out yesterday, and Rian Johnson retweeted it, Jack Posobiec [a well-known far right figure] latched onto it immediately, calling it bullshit and a Russian conspiracy theory. Actually, the Russian bots were just a small part of my paper. It has more to do with what [Posobiec]’s doing right now. He’s this type of political person entering into a discussion that has nothing to do with politics.”

This type of behavior is well documented; it’s what academics, journalists and researchers saw during GamerGate — a reactionary hate campaign that targeted women and marginalized people in and around the games industry; its participants presented the false cover of being interested in “ethics in games journalism” — over the past four years. Bay found the campaign against Johnson connected directly with GamerGate.

“At some point, Rian Johnson tweeted about how there’s a big overlap between people who are engaged in the GamerGate discussion, and the people who were participating in this new discussion,” Bay said. “At that point, a lot of people from the GamerGate controversy actually joined in just because they heard about the term GamerGate being used in another relation. It emphasizes the point that these things are spreading to a degree where people who are engaged in a different part of a political discussion, will then move into a different area to keep pushing that agenda.”

What happened to Johnson isn’t a unique story. The same backlash Johnson received for being “too left” or “too SJW” is common whenever Disney changes a character or story that one side of the political spectrum disagrees with. For example, when Disney decided to re-animate part of Wreck-It Ralph 2 due to concerns over Princess Tiana’s skin appearing lighter in the film compared to the original Princess and the Frog, a very far-right corner of the internet became upset.

Even Kelly Marie Tran faced large amounts of backlash from people who didn’t like her character, Rose Tico, in The Last Jedi. The actress deleted her Instagram photos, and stopped posting on social media. Bay refers to this current period of discourse on the internet, and what happened to people like Johnson, as “peak irrationality.”

“I kind of hope that we’re halfway through the most irrational presidential era this country has had for quite a while,” Bay said. “I hope we’re coming to our senses a little bit.”

Right now, Bay said, there are so many people who are chiming in on conversations or partaking in campaigns they normally wouldn’t care about just to make a political point. Part of what Bay looked at was reported campaigns to review bomb The Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes when the movie first came out. Although Bay didn’t study the link between the review bombing, Twitter reaction and notorious troll sites like 4chan and Reddit to see if there was a stronger connection, he did find that more people were citing sites like 4chan on Twitter around the time the review bombs occurred.

“A lot of people were referencing [those campaigns] as an argument,” Bay said. “It says a lot about our relationship with factuality these days that people would not accept the more credible sources. People wouldn’t accept that Rotten Tomatoes had clearly been review bombed. People are not willing to take the more rational, better or factual arguments, hence the term ‘peak irrationality.’”

Bay’s main takeaway from his research is that pop culture is repurposed as people within political spheres start to use pop culture as a means of spreading their message. He also discovered that people will change their “beliefs in order for their not to be cognitive dissonance in their head.”

“Like, ‘I hate this film so vehemently because they did something to the hero, and I was expecting them to do something different,” Bay said. “‘I feel so much hatred towards this film, how can it be true that other people don’t?’ That is cognitive dissonance, and people will latch onto whatever narrative says the opposite, even if that narrative is not based in any sort of cognitive fact.”

Personal politics play into that field and, according to Bay, now we’re seeing that spread on Twitter to push an agenda — and it’s only going to grow.

“There are enough indications that pop culture debates on social media are being politicized, sometimes for strategic purposes that have nothing to do with the subject under debate,” Bay wrote. “As the debate on misinformation, political communication and regulation of social media continues, researchers studying these matters may find it beneficial to turn their attention to pop culture and how political messaging is propagated in its fandoms.”