About the only thing more contentious than the debate around The Last Jedi is the debate about the debate itself. Amidst the praise and criticism, questions have been raised about the manner in which the discussion have been conducted. What portion of fans harbour ill will towards the film? How many of them are racists or misogynists? And what’s the ultimate effect of all the infighting? Is Star Wars fandom forever broken?
Yesterday, researcher Morten Bay released an academic paper attempting to address those questions. Entitled "Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation," it examines a sampling of 967 tweets (one per account) sent to writer/director Rian Johnson over a period of six months. Analysing the language used in the tweets, as well as the qualities possessed by the accounts tweeting them, Bay came to some startling conclusions - and some that aren't startling at all. Turns out the film's Twitter haters follow a similar pattern to its RottenTomatoes haters (which BMD reported on opening weekend).
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 first categorises the tweets into positive, neutral, and negative opinions, of which 206 (21.9%) ended up in the “negative” column (and only five were from female-identifying accounts). He then further analyses the negative tweets and their parent accounts, further dividing them into categories: 11 tweets from bots, 33 from sock puppet or troll accounts; 61 clearly driven by a political agenda, and 101 (i.e. 10.5% of the total) from demonstrably real people with a non-political reason for disliking the film. So if the study is anything to go by, no, not all Last Jedi haters are “politically motivated or not even human” - just around half of them.
Based on the findings in the present study, it is not fair to generalize and paint all of the The Last Jedi detractors as alt-right activists, racists or misogynists. However, the findings above show that a majority of the negatively-poised users included in the study do express such sentiments, either in The Last Jedi-related tweets or in other tweets on their accounts. These identity-based political values combine with traditional party politics and issue-based politics to represent a politicization of Star Wars critique which is found in more than half of the negative accounts in this study.
Most curiously of all, Bay discovered 16 of the selected accounts exhibited multiple characteristics (verbiage, account activity patterns, and so on) possessed by the kind of Russian troll accounts that "hacked" the 2016 US election - some even among the accounts later deleted by Twitter for that reason - and all of them were anti-The Last Jedi. That’s a particularly interesting point, as it's not immediately clear how hating on a Star Wars movie serves Russia’s geopolitical ends. But Bay speculates:
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. The results of the study show that among those who address The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson directly on Twitter to express their dissatisfaction, more than half are bots, trolls/sock puppets or political activists using the debate to propagate political messages supporting extreme right-wing causes and the discrimination of gender, race or sexuality.
Sounds a lot like the plot of the Star Wars prequels, in which a civil war was fomented from nowhere in order to create disruption and allow a strongman to rise to power. Which leads to Bay’s other major point: The Last Jedi is not really any more progressively political than any other Star Wars film. Hell, if you actually read the films, they've always been left-leaning. Rather, Bay suggests, the film likely caused cognitive dissonance for conservative viewers who themselves had become more politicised in the Trump era - and who’d never before considered the Star Wars films as political works of art.
Bay is quick to point out the shortcomings of his own study. He didn’t collect every single tweet about the film, focusing instead on a representative sample. The study also doesn’t take into account opinions from outside of Twitter, tweets not directed at Johnson, or bad-faith arguments; nor does it consider any correlation between Twitter use and the harbouring of extreme views in general. And obviously, those same flaws apply to positive responses too. “It is nonetheless noteworthy,” he counters, “that a majority of the negativity stems from politicized accounts which are often part of an organized attempt to disrupt and sow discord using the The Last Jedi controversy.”
The full study can be read here, and it’s a fascinating read. The notion that pop culture and fandom can be weaponised in this manner is pretty unsettling: knowing that the controversy was shaped in part as a Palpatinian attempt to undermine Western democracy is even more so. Seems a lot of people got played, just as in the 2016 election. Hell, we ultimately did, too, in giving the more extreme haters our column inches. But the positive takeaway from this is that Star Wars fandom likely isn’t as fractured as Twitter negativity and news reports make it seem.
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.— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) October 2, 2018