The relationship between Star Wars films and Star Wars fans has always been somewhat fraught, from Original Trilogy-era Ewok grievances to that thing named Jar Jar. The torches-and-pitchfork fanboy mobs of the Internet, however, seemed to ascend to a new level of outrage over the latest official installment in the saga, 2017’s The Last Jedi, over, of all issues, the cast being too diverse. A new study alleges, however, that these voices of online anger come not from a mob of regressively-minded fanboys but rather—cue X-Files theme music—a fleet of Russian bots?
Morten Bay, a Ph.D. graduate from UCLA with a focus on Social Media Policy, tweeted out a link to a study he conducted that looks at the “politicization of [Star Wars] fandom” called Weaponizing The Haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation.
The long and short of the conclusions reached by Bay, apparently, is evidence that the backlash toward The Last Jedi’s diverse cast comes not only from a small —albeit quite vocal—minority, but also that roughly half of those haters are politically-motivated trolls, with “a number of these users [appearing] to be Russian Trolls” whose purpose, Bay believes, is to seemingly “further [propagate] a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society”:
Here's my paper (final draft) on politicization of #StarWars fandom & #TheLastJedi, accepted for pub. in First Monday. It shows ~50% of criticism directed @rianjohnson was political trolling, some of it likely from Russia. Also shows haters=small minority. https://t.co/fFGSxJToi5 pic.twitter.com/BUCJLpl0FI
— Morten Bay, PhD (@mortenbay) October 1, 2018
Bay’s methods and observations have received their own fair share of attention from both sides of the issue (just check the comments on the above tweet) but perhaps the most important sets of eyes to take note of Bay’s study is the Last Jedi director himself, Rian Johnson, who retweeted the study with the insight that “what the top-line describes is consistent with my experience online.”
A bit of Morten’s research came out awhile ago and made some headlines – here’s his full paper. Looking forward to reading it, but what the top-line describes is consistent with my experience online. https://t.co/MTRgmPxGgZ
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) October 1, 2018
If Bay’s observations are true, the bots must be hard at work, not only spamming disparaging comments but also having the finesse to pull off a de-feminized edit of The Last Jedi. Their jobs are only going to get harder, though, as a additional studies show that Star Wars only continues to trend upward in its embrace of diversity.