Star Wars stormtroopers against a dark red background.

Bots, Trolls Propelled Faux ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Controversy

The “Star Wars” franchise was not immune from the sort of controversy that has seeped into every tiny nook and cranny of the American public discourse, thanks to the ubiquity of social media and those who wish to exploit conflicts in order to create chaos.

In that vein, the film Star Wars: The Last Jedi was more of the same. A piece in Wired details writer Angela Watercutter’s experience in late 2017 after writing an article praising the film’s ethnic diversity and strong female characters with a Facebook message she received from a stranger filled with racial epithets and exhortations to kill herself:

Hearing that I don’t “get” Star Wars is fairly common, but this response seemed odd, like the person was looking to have a political debate, not an artistic one. My piece had touched on politics, of course, but it was more about inclusivity in casting movies. The whole thing just seemed odd. Trolls are gonna troll, but this one seemed to be on a mission.

It seems that there may have been a specific mission after all, as a new paper from journalist-turned-academic Morten Bay points out. The University of California, Los Angeles researcher says that the online political discourse is still being influenced by preprogrammed bots and online operatives — and what’s more, he says, the effect is spreading as more populations adopt Kremlin-style tactics for manipulating public discourse:

….The Last Jedi fan conflict is not just an interesting case because it is a microcosm of the overall political discourse on social media in the Trump era, but also because it is possible to identify organized and deliberate attempts at right-wing political persuasion and/or defense of conservative values as well as sexism, racism and homophobia in the social media discussions about the film. It is important to stress, of course, that there are also a substantial number of fans who simply think The Last Jedi is a bad film and who use social media to express their disappointment. Regardless of motive, almost all negative fans express the belief that they are in the majority and that most Star Wars fans dislike The Last Jedi.

Bey’s paper uses an analysis of tweets sent directly to Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, concluding that (despite later reports about this very paper to the contrary, characterizing the entire pushback as a Russian disinformation campaign), bots and trolls share a common impetus with what appears to be real, aggrieved fans on social media:

Whether the criticism comes from a Russian troll/bot or from a fan who feels increasingly distant from the values presented in the new Star Wars films, the objective of their actions is a political one. Russian trolls weaponize Star Wars criticism as an instrument of information warfare with the purpose of pushing for political change, while it is weaponized by right-wing fans to forward a conservative agenda and for some it is a pushback against what they perceive as a feminist/social justice onslaught.

It’s very likely then, according to this study, that Russian influence operations saw, rather than created, an opportunity for creating chaos and maximizing opportunities to distract the American public and reporters with some well-timed and well-placed trolling. This, naturally, furthers the Kremlin’s goals of locating and widening cracks in American society and getting groups within it to turn on one another to collapse any and all sense of community; when the media picks up on the conflicts, it only gives them more oxygen.

Several scholars (Rider and Peters, 2018; Fuchs, 2017; Howard et al., 2017; Kaminska et al., 2017) have shown how Russian influence operators exploit precisely this type of cognitive dissonance to persuade individual social media users that their values are under attack, cultivating and advancing polarization and disparity.

The complaints about a perceived politicization of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (and the idea that it was written deliberately to brainwash viewers into accepting ethnic and gender diversity) fly in the face of the reality, which is that the entire franchise has had political leanings and a “social justice” message since its beginnings in the 1970s, and that Disney or director Rian Johnson did not suddenly insert a leftist and feminist message into the series. However, when it comes to trolling, disinformation, and breaking down the public discourse, facts rarely come into play.