Study finds trolls amplified negativity around ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

2 Oct 2018

Daisy Ridley as her ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ character, Rey. Image: Disney

A new study claims that some of the criticism aimed at the most recent Star Wars instalment may have come from trolls and people with a political agenda.

The most recent Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, received a barrage of criticism ahead of and during its release in 2017. Director of the film, Rian Johnson, was also attacked online during the promotional tour.

While there were many genuine fans who were unhappy with the plot of the film, a new study from University of California researcher Morten Bay found evidence of “deliberate, organised political influence measures disguised as fan arguments”.

Sowing discord among ‘Star Wars’ fans

The paper, titled Weaponising the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicisation of pop culture through social media manipulation, analysed the negative online reaction, which Bay split into three groups. The first includes those with a political agenda, second is general trolls and third includes what Bay called ‘real fantagonists’, his term for genuine fans disappointed with the film.

He found that more than 50.9pc of the negative tweets about the film were likely politically motivated “or not even human”. Bay added: “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.”

Bay analysed a list of 2,572 accounts that Twitter itself identified as being linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. Of the nearly 1,000 users that tweeted Johnson in a seven-month period, 16 of these were suspected Russian accounts. The bulk of these “almost exclusively tweeted about The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson or right-wing politics, typically retweeting personalities from the right or alt-right.”

A polarising exercise

The study suggests that while there was some authentic dislike for Johnson’s The Last Jedi, the negative feedback endured by the director himself online seems to have been designed to sow a narrative of “widespread discord and dysfunction in American society”.

“Since the political and ethical positions presented in the new films are consistent with older films, it is more likely that the polarisation of the Trump era has politicised the fans,” Bay said. “The divisive political discourse of the study period and the months leading up to it has [sic] likely primed these fans with a particular type of political messaging that is in direct conflict with the values presented in The Last Jedi.”

The research shows that despite the noise made by critics of the latest Star Wars film, the number of accounts (human or bot) attacking Johnson during this period was less than 22pc.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects