When it arrived in theaters last year, writer-director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi was greeted with an immediate backlash from a specific corner of its audience. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff pointed out in December, the criticism seemed to come from a few different angles: some felt the film was too progressive, that it was too jokey, that it was not interested in the elaborate universe of fan theories that has accreted since the original trilogy’s release, or that the characters’ journeys weren’t exactly to their liking.
None of these lines of attack are new or really surprising, especially for a beloved, 40-year-old series that many feel has defined their experience with science fiction and fan culture in general. What’s new about this round of critique is how political (and politically useful) it became — at least for those who want to use popular culture to influence voters.
A new paper from Morten Bay, a research fellow at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, finds that the polarized fan discourse surrounding The Last Jedi also happened to be the site of an attempted Russian political influence campaign. (The paper hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, and may change before it’s published — so it’s a little less reliable than research that comes out in journals, where other researchers get to kick the tires.)
Bay examined a corpus of messages tweeted at Rian Johnson between December 13th, 2017, and July 20th, 2018 — a total of 967 tweets — ran a sentiment analysis (using a tweet’s language to characterize it as positive, negative, or neutral) on them, segmented the results by account, and then analyzed the Twitter accounts themselves. “Overall,” Bay concludes, “50.9% of those tweeting negatively was likely politically motivated or not even human.” (Bay also found that most fans aren’t so dissatisfied with The Last Jedi that they’re going to boycott any new Star Wars films.)
Bay notes in his abstract that the negative tweets were probably sent to get media coverage of the fandom conflict, which, in his words, was meant to “further propagat[e] a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society.” Persuading voters of that, he notes, is a goal of both the alt-right and the Russian Federation.
“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,” Bay writes.
Of those 967 tweets collected over the dates above, Bay found that 206 “expressed a negative sentiment toward the film and its director, which is 21.9% or a little more than one in five fans,” Bay wrote. Forty-four of those accounts were identified as bots, sock puppets, or trolls, and 61 of those 206 accounts showed a “clear political agend[a]” — a definition that includes real humans who tweet heavily about politics. Of the 44 bot/sock puppet/troll accounts, 33 were identified as trolls or sock puppets. Bay identified only 16 of those 33 as appearing to be Russian trolls. The trolls and bots are actually a minority of the accounts tweeting negative opinions about The Last Jedi.
These days, it’s becoming harder and harder to tell whether the fans angrily tweeting their grievances are even real, let alone politically motivated. You can’t always judge a movie by its Rotten Tomatoes score, and you might not be able to judge a fandom by its tweets, either.
Update, October 2, 6:40 p.m. Eastern Time: This story has been updated to include more details about the study’s methodology. The Verge has reached out to the study’s author for further comment; we will update the story as we hear more.