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The Last Jedi: Study Blames Russian Trolls for ‘Weaponizing’ Social Media Hate

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Findings show many negative viewpoints towards the film didn’t come from normal users.

Regardless of personal opinions on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it appears that Russian trolls used latent fan disagreements around the film to propagate and weaponize a “narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society,” at least according to a recent study.

Via Mashable, the study in question was done by Morten Bay, a research fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It compares the social media reaction that happened in the 2016 US Presidential Election to the social media climate that existed (and still exists) around The Last Jedi.

Ultimately, the study found “evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments” by examining various tweets directed at Rian Johnson, the writer and director of the film.

The results of the study conclude that of those who directly addressed Johnson on Twitter to express negative viewpoints, “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 these are organized attempts at politicizing the pop culture discourse on social media for strategic purposes.

The article stressed that there are naturally a “substantial number of fans who simply think The Last Jedi is a bad film and who use social media to express their disappointment.” However, regardless of motive or bot/troll status, the vast majority of negative fans expressed the belief that they were in the majority, and that most Star Wars fans disliked The Last Jedi.

The paper specifically analyzed tweets sent to Johnson over the first seven months following The Last Jedi’s release. Using Twitter’s advanced search functionality, the author retrieved 1,273 messages tweeted directly to Johnson’s Twitter handle, and weeded out various tweets (repeated tweets, for example) and ended up with 967 tweets to be analyzed: of these, 206 (or about a fifth) “expressed a negative sentiment towards the film and its director.”

Of these negative tweets, 44 accounts were identified as bots, sock puppet accounts or trolls, and that the number of fan tweets towards Johnson that were purely motivated by a negative stance towards the film was roughly 10.5 percent of the total tweets, which falls in line with many accepted estimates of negative fan reactions towards the film. Overall, just over half of those tweeting negatively were determined to be politically motivated, or not human (i.e., bots).

Ultimately, 11 out of the of 206 tweets expressing negative sentiments were identified as coming from bots, 33 were identified as trolls or sock puppet accounts (accounts real users hid behind to conceal their identity), and 16 of the 33 appeared to be Russian trolls. 7 of these 16 had auto-generated handles, and 11 of the 16 are suspected of being run by Russian trolls that tweeted almost exclusively about the film, Johnson, or extreme right-wing US politics.

The paper found that the data didn’t support claims that the majority of Star Wars fans were dissatisfied enough with The Last Jedi that they would boycott subsequent Disney-helmed Star Wars films. It also fount that the majority of those who had negative reactions (legitimate and fake) identified as male users, with only a tiny fraction of negative fans identifying as female.

Rian Johnson himself responded to the study on Twitter, saying “what the top-line describes is consistent with my experience online,” meaning that about half of the criticism directed towards him was political trolling, and that the haters were in a minority. However, he added that he’s specifically referring to online harassment, and accepted both negative and positive views of his film.

Even if some of the Twitter users that messaged Johnson may have been fake or politically motivated, there are still many fans who simply did not like the movie. Furthermore, it’s important to note that only a fraction of the users that messaged Johnson were found to be Russian trolls, though they definitely appeared to be politically motivated, and the study found they were likely attempting to further inflate the perception of social media hate and division in our society.

The study also referenced recent developments surround the film and the perceived negativity towards it, including actress Kelly Marie Tran deleting her Instagram account due to harassment and Mark Hamill apologizing for criticizing the film. We also dug into some of the plot-based reasons why some Star Wars fans hate the Last Jedi.

For more on recent reactions to the film, see why the Internet is pretty sure it’s fixed The Last Jedi, and read about Mark Hamill’s theory on what happened to Luke Skywalker at the end of the film.

Colin Stevens is a freelance writer for IGN, and he enjoyed The Last Jedi, but thinks large chunks of it should have been cut. Follow him on Twitter.





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