Online Debate Stirs Fears of a ‘Star Wars’ Disinformation Campaign

A round of rumors and criticism surrounding the new Star Wars movie series has ignited debate in what has become an ongoing discussion about disinformation pushed in pop culture fandom — but experts are split whether that label applies to a Reddit post claiming inside information on the making of the latest installment.

The post, uploaded to the page r/SaltierThanCrait posted what it described as plot points that were supposed to be included in The Rise of Skywalker (often called TROS for short) but cut before the film’s release in December 2019.

According to Redditor “egoshoppe,” the information came from an unidentified source who worked on the movie. But the post also included claims that Disney intentionally stifled director JJ Abrams to hurt his stock with other companies and Warner Brothers Entertainment. According to the source, Disney wanted to “make [Abrams] look bad to potential investors/shareholders” to protect itself against competition in the superhero movie market; Disney owns and distributes Marvel Entertainment’s movie and television properties, while Warner has the same relationship to properties by DC Entertainment.

“WB wants Abrams for some DC projects. My source said that this generation’s Star Wars is the MCU, and Marvel’s biggest threat is a well operational DC,” the source said. “They want to keep DC in the limbo that they’re in right now. Abrams jumpstarting that franchise with something like a successful, audience-pleasing Superman movie makes them nervous. Their goal is to make JJ look bad to potential investors/shareholders.”

The post spurred interest in the hashtag #ReleaseTheJJCut, a reference to the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut online campaign calling for Warner Brothers to release an alternative version of Zack Snyder’s 2017 film Justice League. Snyder himself has said he has compiled his own cut of the movie.

According to Ryan Broderick, who covers disinformation for BuzzFeed, the Reddit post “inflamed long-running Star Wars fandom paranoia”:

It was impossible for Redditors to ascertain whether egoshoppe was telling the truth, trolling for fun, or lying to help Abrams, whose film has faced a critical and fan backlash. Regardless, #ReleaseTheJJCut trended on Twitter as fans pieced together links and quotes from the cast, screenwriters, and directors that seemed to prove a different cut of “The Rise of Skywalker” existed.

But according to researcher Morten Bay, who published a 2018 study of active misinformation efforts following the release of the franchise’s eighth film The Last Jedi, many of the Reddit post’s claims of discarded plot points match the kind of remarks made by friends of his who work in Hollywood.

“What this sounds like to me is that the guy actually has a legit source in the industry,” said Bay, a research fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California. “But what he’s doing is taking things that would be quite normal in the production process and he’s kind of presenting it in a way that lends itself to a certain view.”

The post itself, he said, did not match the pattern of the disinformation efforts covered in his study, which analyzed 967 Twitter accounts that addressed posts to Last Jedi director Rian Johnson between December 2017 and July 2018. The study found that 206 of the accounts posting were negative. Among those were tweets emanating from 44 accounts identified as “bots, sock puppet accounts and trolls”:

One such account tweeted at Rian Johnson, with only little lingual variation from tweet to tweet, that he “ruined Star Wars” no less than 13 times during a three-week period, along with other tweets disparaging the director. In addition to these tweets, the vast majority of other tweets on the account were retweeted messages from Donald Trump and black conservative activist and commentator Candace Owens. 11 of the 16 accounts suspected of being run by Russian trolls almost exclusively tweeted about “The Last Jedi,” Rian Johnson or right-wing U.S. politics, typically retweeting personalities from the right or alt-right.

Most of those bogus accounts, the study said, were either created or “became active after being dormant for months or years” around the time Last Jedi was released in American theaters and the first indication of negative Twitter posts about the movie. But in discussing the study’s findings with us, Bay said that what alarmed him more was discovering 61 authentic accounts — what he called “accounts who had political motivations but were real people” — fanning the flames for their own purposes.

“Those are the ones I’m focused on,” he said:

That’s where you find the gun rights activists, for example, that suddenly start caring about Star Wars. They see an opportunity to recruit people to their cause, by latching onto the anti-leftist debate that was going on in the Star Wars community at the time. That’s the Russian tactic that these American activists have adopted.

In his story for BuzzFeed, Broderick said that “decades of corporatization and anonymous decentralized networking” had caused a climate of misinformation and anger within the Star Wars fan community.

“It is a glimpse of a future in which anxieties over the motives of the megacorporations that drive our culture — down to our very mythologies — set off conflicts between warring information tribes who inhabit their own artificial narratives,” he wrote. “What began with small but vocal insurgent online communities like 4chan or the alt-right has now come for the mainstream.”

In a follow-up post, “eggoshoppe” claimed to have verified that their source worked on TROS through “documents, folders and forms related to their work” as well as photographs they claimed matched up to production timelines.

“While I have proof of who my source is, I don’t have proof of many of their claims,” they wrote. “I have chosen to trust them based on our prior interactions.”

They also added what they called a statement from the source that read, in part:

I have no qualms in admitting that I come from a biased place and that I have an agenda as well. My agenda is to fight a genuinely massive force that is trying to control a narrative in such devious ways. Anyone saying “but JJ is an established powerhouse” — bless you but he’s an ant compared to Disney. Disney — a company that used him merely as a tool and tossed him when they no longer liked the decisions that he made (decisions outside of Disney and decisions that Disney has no business sticking their noses in).

The source also criticized coverage of the alleged plot leaks, calling the reporting “flat-out laughable” and saying it made journalists “look like they’re trying to cover it up by being ridiculously over-the-top in mentioning buzzwords/sentences like ‘tin-foil hat’ and ‘conspiracy’.”

“We live in a ‘fake news’ world now and we’re all well aware that the media now has an agenda,” they added.

After we showed him the “source’s” follow-up post Bay told us that he doubted that they were close to the decision-making process on Rise of Skywalker.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of my many Hollywood friends and acquaintances say something like ‘Disney — a company that used him merely as a tool and tossed him when they no longer liked the decisions that he made (decisions outside of Disney and decisions that Disney has no business sticking their noses in),'” he said. “Professionals at any respectable level in Hollywood know that the producing studio has every right to ‘stick their noses in’ decisions.”

He also pushed back against the post’s depiction of coverage of the film:

When it comes to trolls with political agendas who spread disinformation, it is a common trope to claim that “the media” as a whole is lying, because it bolsters the troll’s own credibility. The assumption is that readers are gullible enough to believe the troll when he/she/they say: “Don’t believe them, they’re liars. Believe me instead”. It’s also a question of persuasion tactics. If you can shake people away from one belief into what we call the “latitude of non-commitment” (in this case, uncertainty), it is much easier to bring them over to your side, which is exactly what political trolls try to do.

As for the media lying about TROS: Journalists at serious news outlets almost always require two, preferably three independent sources to confirm a claim. It might be a somewhat colorful topic, but the business of Hollywood is very real, and the business journalists covering it are is just as serious as those covering tech, energy or foreign policy. So what I keep asking myself when I read these claims from “the source” is this: Why Reddit? If the source went to all the trouble of producing the many verification documents that the OP required, and writing a whole statement, that must mean that this is important to the source. It’s a story he/she/they would want to come out. Why not go to an established journalist and get the news out in a much bigger news outlet where it could have some real impact? If what the source says is true, surely a journalist could find someone else out there that could serve as the second source for the story?

Prior to that update, Bay told us that after publishing his research, he was invited to meetings with film studio representatives to discuss his findings, and how to stop social media chatter from interfering with their marketing efforts.

“I told them I don’t think it [would be] morally right that they would try to tamper with what people saw about it,” he said:

They would just be engaging in disinformation warfare. But I also told them that there are timing things they can do. They can make sure that certain assets are being presented on social media at a certain time to make things happen. There are counter-measures they can do that are basic marketing to avoid this. But the fact of the matter is, if people don’t like a film they will talk about it, and that’s just the way it is.

Update 01/13/2020, 12:59pm: This article has been updated with further comments from Morten Bay.