Kelly Marie Tran at Star Wars premiere

Star Wars: The Last Jedi fan conflict amplified by Russian trolls

Image credit: Dreamstime

An analysis of tweets directed at The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson has demonstrated that haters of the film are a vocal minority and are heavily backed up by political activists and a Kremlin-backed influence operation.

A report published by special counsel Robert Mueller in February detailed how special operatives based at Kremlin-backed institution the Internet Research Agency were employed to generate hatred, division and confusion online, in order to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Mueller charged 13 Russian individuals and three institutions, including the Internet Research Agency, with interfering with the election.

Now, a new paper written by Morten Bay, a research fellow at the University of Southern California, presents further evidence that these operations extended well beyond strictly political discussion and into debates on pop culture, notably relating to Johnson’s Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The association between pop culture conflicts and Russian influence operations was suggested in a NBC News report in February containing 200,000 deleted Tweets which could be traced by to the Internet Research Agency.

Significant media coverage has been dedicated to the “toxic” debate relating to the film’s drive to boost representation for women and ethnic minority characters, while allegedly compromising the character of Luke Skywalker, a central hero of the original trilogy of Star Wars films. Critics of the film have gone so far as to hound Vietnamese-American actress Last Jedi Kelly Marie Tran from social media with racist and misogynist abuse online and set up a Change.org petition demanding the film is removed from the official Star Wars canon.

Supporters of the film have characterised these critics as disenchanted young men associated with the ‘alt-right’ movement, although this study finds that the conflict surrounding the film has also been deliberately aggravated by political activists, including employees of the Internet Research Agency.

In his paper, Bay, a research fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, describes how politically motivated Twitter users have adopted The Last Jedi and its director as a “placeholder for left-wing positions” and knowingly agitate the conflict to give the impression of a chaotic culture war.

Bay collected nearly 1,000 text-based tweets directed at Johnson behind its opening in December 2017 and July 2018 by different users. Of these tweets, 21.9 per cent were negative, varying from simply calling the film “dumb” to describing Johnson’s direction as a “war crime”. This group was overwhelmingly male-identified, although some accounts were not associated with humans.

Bay then divided these negative tweets into three categories: real “fantagonists” who were invested in the franchise, then political activists and finally trolls, sock puppets and bots. Political activists, trolls, sock puppets and bots made up 50.9 per cent of the group of Twitter users sending negative comments to Johnson.

Twitter users associated with conservative political activism were also found to be tweeting frequently in favour of President Trump, the Second Amendment and negatively about social justice issues, often directly attacking women, ethnic minorities and the LGBT+ community (including in their tweets relating to The Last Jedi). Of the 33 accounts that could be categorised as trolls, sock puppets or bots, 16 had strong indicators of being connected to Russian influencing operations - in Bay’s words, “Russian trolls”.

“The likely objective of these [influencing] 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,” wrote Bay. “Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the US alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation.”

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