There’s been a great deal of social media backlash about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, enough to make you think that the film was a dramatic creative failure with the fans. There was so much of it that many of us, fans and industry professionals alike, were joking that the public dialog was being swayed by the participation of Russian trolls.
We didn’t think this would actually turn out to be true.
Did Star Wars: The Last Jedi destroy the franchise and sunder Star Wars fandom? According to a new academic paper by researcher Morten Bay, the answer is clearly no.
The paper is called Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation, and it examines the online response to 2017’s Last Jedi. The movie became controversial amongst the larger fanbase of the franchise to some degree, and now we know why.
Bay’s paper finds “evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments,” as he writes in the paper’s abstract. He continues, “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.”
There were apparently three different camps: those with a political agenda (usually just alt-right adherents who believed that somehow Star Wars was part of some political propaganda conspiracy) , trolls, and what Bay calls “real fantagonists,” which he defines as genuine Star Wars fans disappointed in the movie. His findings are fascinating; “Overall, 50.9% of those tweeting negatively [about the movie] was likely politically motivated or not even human,” he writes, noting that only 21.9% of tweets analyzed about the movie had been negative in the first place.
“A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls,” Bay writes of the negative tweets.
Only about 10.5% were actually from people who genuinely didn’t like the film. The other 10.5% responsible for the negative social media commentary were either Russian trolls, domestic (non-Russian) trolls, or bots. The vast majority of the social media commentary, 79.1%, were positive to enthusiastic in content and nature. The so-called “boycott” of the Star Wars films appears to be confined to about 3% of the total social media environment surrounding the film at very most, and this doesn’t even take into account any analysis of how many agents in this category were actually just sock puppet accounts. The actual number is probably far lower.
Bay also suggests that complaints about Lucasfilm’s reported politicization of the franchise by many of the disaffected fans says more about the fans than it does Disney or Lucasfilm’s treatment of it. “[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.”
In response to a tweet announcing the release of the paper, Last Jedi director Rian Johnson shared the tweet, adding, “Looking forward to reading it, but 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
Johnson goes on to note:
And just to be totally clear: this is not about fans liking or not liking the movie – I’ve had tons of great talks with great fans online and off who liked and disliked stuff, that’s what fandom is all about. This is specifically about a virulent strain of online harassment.
This study reinforces what many fans – and Disney and Lucasfilm as well – had suspected: the outrage against the film was largely manufactured, apparently by agencies outside the United States intent on promoting conflict in every aspect of public discourse.