'Last Jedi' Russian Bots: New Paper Sheds Light on the Star Wars Fan Debate
The good guys in Star Wars have had to face armies of droids and clones before, but their newest nefarious enemy might be Russian bots on Twitter. And instead of attacking the Galactic Republic, they’re targeting The Last Jedi and its director Rian Johnson.
A new paper titled Weaponizing The Haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation by USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism research fellow Morten Bay investigates the backlash. To date, most people would call the general consensus around The Last Jedi reviews “mixed” at best.
This study, however, drops the bombshell that more than half of all the Twitter users who expressed their dissatisfaction about The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson were actually “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 theorizes that these users “appear to be Russian trolls,” calling these efforts one of many “organized attempts at politicizing the pop culture discourse on social media for strategic purposes.”
What might that “strategic purpose” entail?
Bay somewhat radically suggests it has everything to do with an alliance between the right-wing American extremists and the Russian government.
“The likely objective of these measures is increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict,” he writes, “thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society. Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the U.S. alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation.”
The usage of bots to target The Last Jedi is anything but new. Making the assumption that they’re all tied into a broader Russian conspiracy to sow discord in American society, however, is new.
Shortly after The Last Jedi’s release, there was almost immediately a historic divide between the critic reviews and audience response (or so we thought).
This is best illustrated by The Last Jedi’s Rotten Tomatoes page, where it’s is certified fresh at 91 percent from 393 critics but rotten at a user score of 45 percent based on 201,084 reviews. That disparity would usually tell us that critics loved it while regular moviegoers did not, but a split that significant is exceedingly rare, so rare in fact that websites exist solely to poke fun at the phenomenon. (By comparison, the crowd-pleasing previous Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is rated 93 and 87 percent by critics and audience, respectively.)
In December, Inverse spoke with a person claiming to be a “hacker” who admitted to using bots to artificially deflate The Last Jedi’s score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Could these conspiracies be linked?
Bay’s study links a small but noticeable percentage of the tweets aimed at Rian Johnson on the topic of Star Wars: The Last Jedi directly back to Russian bot accounts, but it’s a fraction of a fraction. Out of 967 tweets included in the investigation, only 206 (that’s 21.9 percent) were negative. Out of that number, only 33 were identified as bots specifically meant to harm the film, and just 16 of those could be identified as Russian bots.
So the connection between the Star Wars smear campaign and Russia’s political bot network may not be particularly strong, but it’s still there. And at the very least, it’s clear that bots were used in some way to attack The Last Jedi by influencing its Rotten Tomatoes score, even if Putin wasn’t directly involved.
Then again, if the Russians want to destroy American society by creating discord through social media, then creating a toxic debate around one of our greatest cultural creations, Star Wars, is a pretty good place to start. We’ll just have to see what happens next year when Episode 9 comes out.
Star Wars: Episode IX is scheduled for release on December 20, 2019.