When it arrived in theaters last year, writer-director Rian Johnson’sStar Wars:The Last Jediwas greeted with an immediate backlash from a specific corner of its audience. AsVox’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 surroundingThe Last Jedialso happened to be the site of an attempted Russian political influence campaign. 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 on them, segmented the results by account, and then analyzed the Twitter accounts. “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 withThe Last Jedithat they’re going to boycott any newStar Warsfilms.)
As Bay notes in his abstract, 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-rightandthe 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 wrote.
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.
A bit of Morten’s research came out awhile ago and made some headlines – here’s his full paper. Looking forward to reading it, but what the top-line describes is consistent with my experience online. https://t.co/MTRgmPxGgZ
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) October 1, 2018