Now they’ve really crossed a line. Not content to meddle in the foundation of American democracy, a new academic research paper has found that Russian trolls are also helping turn sci-fi fantasy entertainment fans against each other. Because apparently nothing is sacred anymore.
According to the final draft of a paper from journalist and author Morten Bay, he estimates that around 50 percent of the online hate-fest directed at what’s come to be seen as a controversial addition to the Star Wars canon was “political trolling, some of it likely from Russia.”
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, Ph.D. and stuff (@mortenbay) October 1, 2018
Bay’s paper is titled “Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation.” The full paper is here, and an abstract of it reads in part:
“The results of the social media study presented in this paper presents evidence that political influence through manipulation of social media discussions is no longer exclusive to political debate but can now also be found in pop culture. Specifically, this study examines a collection of tweets relating to a much-publicized fan dispute over the Star Wars franchise film Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The study finds evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments. 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.”
It goes on to note that persuading voters of that narrative remains a strategic goal of both Russia as well as the “U.S. alt-right movement.”
It continues: “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. A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls.”
The paper concludes that while only a minority of Twitter accounts were part of this campaign against the movie, “organized attempts at politicizing the pop culture discourse on social media for strategic purposes are significant enough that users should be made aware of these measures, so they can act accordingly.”
Morten has been sensitive on Twitter to some media coverage of this study over-simplifying its conclusions. Like this take from Comicbook.com which announced that his study “Suggests ‘Significant’ Amount of The Last Jedi trolls are politicized bots.”
That’s not at all the conclusion Morten reached.
With all due respect to the journalist, the study actually says the opposite. There's only a small number of bots, but an interesting number of trolls, and a lot of people with a political agenda. Also, I graduated, thanks 😁.
— Morten Bay, Ph.D. and stuff (@mortenbay) October 2, 2018
His findings were more nuanced. Focused, for example, on the fact that just some of the activity has Russian fingerprints, which is nevertheless worth noting because it’s another example of using social media to foment division. And remember, the online mobs were so vocal against the movie that actress Kelly Marie Tran was harassed to the point she quit social media.
“In this paper, I analyze tweets sent to the director of The Last Jedi over the first seven months after its release,” Morten writes in the paper. “In the collected data, I have discovered political agitation for right-wing values using The Last Jedi as a placeholder for left-wing positions.
“Furthermore, it appears that political activists have used bots and sock puppet accounts to troll left-wing fans, and there is even evidence that Russian influence operators have inserted themselves into the debate to exploit and exacerbate the conflict, thereby securing more media attention to the conflict, which again helps spread the perception that America is divided and in chaos.”