Last winter, a little movie called Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi ran into a bit of a pickle en route to grossing $1.3 billion globally: Some Star Wars heads did not care for it — no siree, Bob. And these jilted fans made their vitriol well known online. At the time, it seemed like there really weren’t that many haters, that they were just louder than the people who enjoyed, even loved the series’ eighth “episode.” So guess what? About half of those naysayers were Russian trolls, as it turns out.
The Hollywood Reporter highlighted a new academic paper by researcher Morten Bay. Entitled Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation, the paper — which you can read in full here — argues that the “controversy” over Rian Johnson’s contribution to the four decade-old franchise was ginned-up, inaccurate, and unearned.
Bay, in his abstract, says he found “evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments” that made many fan complaints simple disinformation. He continues, by saying, “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.”
That’s right: Russia isn’t only interested in American elections. They’re interested in our movies about giant walking bears and robots that look like wastebins, too.
Bay looks at the movie’s negative online reactions, which he breaks down into three groups: those with a political agenda, trolls, and what he calls “real fantagonists” — those who were genuinely disappointed.
“Overall, 50.9% of those tweeting negatively [about the movie] was likely politically motivated or not even human,” he writes, adding, “A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls.”
What’s more, only 21.9% of The Last Jedi-related tweets, Bay estimates, had been negative in the first place.
Bay takes this further, arguing that maybe the Trump era has simply corrupted even blockbuster discourse.
“[S]ince the political and ethical positions presented in the new films are consistent with older films, it is more likely that the polarization of the Trump era has politicized the fans,” Bay argues. “The divisive political discourse of the study period and the months leading up to it, has likely primed these fans with a particular type of political messaging that is in direct conflict with the values presented in The Last Jedi.”
Of course, this could be even more troubling. Are Russian trolls targeting anything else and altering our perception of the online discourse around it? Are they zeroing in on all aspects of American life? What could be next — trolls fomenting faux-controversies over Pixar movies or game shows or hockey mascots? Does this silly Last Jedi news mean we’re really in danger?
Until we know, at least Rian Johnson can sleep better at night, even if he already knew that the film he worked so hard on grossed a gigantic chunk of money, scored a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is the highest selling Blu-Ray of 2018. On top of all that, now he gets to read an academic paper with a long title!