Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Russian Trolls, and the Disintegration of Discourse
Late last year, I got a Facebook message from someone, let's call them a "fan," asking why writers like me "always talk about misogyny and somewhere find a way to cry about Trump no matter what it's about." (They didn't refer to me as a "writer" but I'm not going to type the epithet actually used.) The piece the message was referring to was titled "Star Wars: The Last Jedi Will Bother Some People. Good." It was a reflection on the racist, sexist backlash that was then just starting to bubble up around Rian Johnson's latest installment of the Skywalker Saga and, contrary to what the critique on my phone said, my story never mentioned President Trump's name once. The message ended with a string of racist comments, and the suggestion that I kill myself.
I've thought about this message a lot, not because it was gross—it was, but if you have the audacity to have opinions about Star Wars on the internet, these things happen—but because of the very particular language that was used. The message frequently referred to the fact that Trump won and that "snowflakes" would never run the country. Hearing that I don't "get" Star Wars is fairly common, but this response seemed odd, like the person was looking to have a political debate, not an artistic one. My piece had touched on politics, of course, but it was more about inclusivity in casting movies. The whole thing just seemed odd. Trolls are gonna troll, but this one seemed to be on a mission.
Today, I learned, they might've been. According to a new paper from Morten Bay at the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future, a large majority of the social media comments about the film were "deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments." By analyzing tweets about the movie, Bay found a coordinated effort, similar to the one used in the lead-up to the 2016 election, to weaponize the debate about the movie to further the notion of chaos in American society. "Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the US alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation," Bay writes. "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." Ultimately, Bay determined 50.9 percent of people tweeting negatively about the movie to Johnson were "likely politically motivated or not even human."
This tracks. There was (seemingly) an effort from the so-called alt-right to boycott the Star Wars films after the release of Rogue One over that film's female protagonist and diverse cast. And not too long ago actress Kelly Marie Tran (The Last Jedi's Rose Tico) left Instagram after receiving hateful comments. (She eventually fired back at the trolls in an op-ed for The New York Times.) Even Johnson himself has co-signed Bay's research, saying what the study describes is "consistent with my experience online." In other words, there have been signs of this for a while.
But what Star Wars fans—the living, breathing ones, not the bots—should do about it, is a tougher question to answer. There is, doubtless, a subset of the fandom—of fandoms beyond Star Wars'—that can be toxic, that can traffic in racism, sexism, and homophobia. There are folks, who in the words of my colleague Adam Rogers see the new, more diverse galaxy far, far away as an attack. "In their minds," he notes, "critiques of monochrome casting become criticism of people who liked those prior versions—critiques of them—landing at the exact moment they lose perceived centrality in the story the thought they owned." Bay backs this up; he notes that many fans do believe Disney and Lucasfilm have politicized the franchise, "but since the political and ethical positions presented in the new films are consistent with older films, it is more likely that the polarization of the Trump era has politicized the fans." But regardless of the instigator, the conversation about Star Wars has taken a turn, and it shows no signs of turning back. There is toxicity in the fandom, and it's getting harder to root out.
Trolls have existed almost as long as the internet, and everyone has their own rules about whether or not to respond to, or "feed," them. It's easy to ignore the ones just trying to pick fights, but ignoring actual hate speech within a fandom, any fandom, allows it to fester. When the troll could be a bot or sock puppet, as Bay's research suggests, the conundrum gets worse—you could be engaging with, and signal-boosting, a bot, or not calling out an actual bad actor. And bots can still sway the opinions of real people and make them believe there are more fans who agree with them than there actually are. In his study, Bay found that not all Last Jedi critics are "alt-right activists, racists, or misogynists." He also cautions that because of the small sample size, "generalizing and extending this to the entire Star Wars fandom should happen with extreme caution." Yes, the people who don't like a particular movie don't all dislike it for the same reasons, but it gets harder and harder to have an honest discussion about cinematic quality, let alone cultural impact, when some of the speakers are just there to throw kerosene on a flame war. And when that happens, when it's impossible to know which sentiments are real and what motivates the people sharing them, discourse crumbles. Every discussion becomes an awkward family dinner that could turn into a relationship-ending fight—if we let it.
This, Bay concludes, is why it's important to keep an eye on bad actors in fandoms. We tend to think of trolls—the election-meddling kind—as being deep on message boards, or planting bad memes on Facebook. But that's just the start. They're also debating the B plots of sci-fi movies and yelling at their directors on Twitter. In battling misinformation campaigns, Bay says, attention should be paid to pop culture as well as political culture.
After I got that Facebook message late last year, a friend asked if I was upset. I wasn't. I'd long ago learned to think of comments section blowhards and folks in my mentions as not entirely real. Not that I presumed they were bots or sock puppets necessarily, but that the comments were came from people living out a persona online, just saying antagonizing things for the lulz. Yet, I never deleted the message. I still don't think it's worth agonizing over personally, still believe that it came from someone who doesn't know me and may not be a Star Wars fan. But I do think it was an indicator. It made me realize the days of simply debating about Ewoks and complaining about the prequels were over, already a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.