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New research says Russian bots fuelled Twitter backlash to ‘The Last Jedi’

A recent study found that half of the negative tweets The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson received came from politically motivated users and bots.

True, The Last Jedi had its flaws. And that scene of Luke drinking fresh alien cow milk was… weird.

But it’s a bit suspicious, if not unnatural, that a movie about sword-wielding wizard-priests in space and furry creatures with no pants ended up becoming the centre of a fierce political debate.

The negative reception was so toxic, dissenting fans repeatedly harassed cast member Kelly Marie Tran which ultimately led her to leave social media.

Several alt-right and conservative figures slammed the movie mercilessly, and even prominent gay frog theorist/conspiracy junkie Alex Jones called it a “giant social engineering experiment” and labelled it as “anti-nationalist, anti-family, anti-male, anti-human, anti-female”.

So, how did criticising The Last Jedi go from “the script might have benefited from better character development” to “this is Chinese-funded SJW propaganda”?

Morten Bay, a PhD researcher at the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future, studied the tweets sent to director Rian Johnson between the release of the film on December 2017 and July 2018.

Bay analysed a dataset of 967 tweets and found that 206 expressed “a negative sentiment” towards the film. Of those 206 unflattering comments, 101 came from real fans genuinely disappointed by the movie.

The rest – 105 of the 206 – came from politically motivated users, bots and trolls. More specifically, 11 of those 105 accounts were identified as bots, 61 as politically motivated users and 33 were found to be troll accounts.

Of those 33 troll accounts spotted, 16 appeared to have the typical characteristics of Russian trolls.

So, why are Russia and conservative groups targeting a sci-fi blockbuster? Who benefits from watching a bunch of nerds fight over the internet?

What seems innocuous and silly at first actually has very serious undertones.

Giving the impression society is broken and divided instils apathy. Apathy leads to cynical citizens that say “meh” a little too often. Cynicism leads to inaction, which we see in the low electoral turnouts all over the world.

“The study finds evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments,” Bay writes in his paper.

“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.”

Throughout his 38-page paper, the researcher not only goes in deep to explain the methodology of his study but also analyses why the current political climate provides the perfect fertile ground for these culture wars to erupt.

“It appears that some fans with right-leaning political views expected the franchise to be politically neutral, as they went to see the first Star Wars film of the Trump presidency, The Last Jedi. They saw its arguments for equality of gender, race and class as a new, leftist takeover of Star Wars, even though Star Wars has always been politically left-leaning.

“The Last Jedi is unique in that it landed in the Trump era, acting as a lightning rod at a time when most cinemagoers had chosen a political side for or against the president and adopted the ‘obsessions and resentments’ of their political camp, with social media acting as the primary battleground.”

These findings align with recent scandals where social media has been used as a weapon for social disruption for political gain.

Last March we saw the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupt after learning Facebook was turned into a tool of psychological warfare in benefit of the pro-Brexit campaign and Trump’s presidential win.

Facebook was also used to spread misinformation during the Colombian peace referendum in 2016, and now it seems bots are using social media to pit Lady Gaga fans against Marvel’s latest film, Venom.

However, Bay did caution against drawing the wrong conclusion from his research, even if Russian bots were indeed involved in the backlash to the film.

“I really tried to be very careful in how I framed this,” he told the Washington Post.

“There’s no evidence Russians did anything unusual or meaningful.”

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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