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Star Wars

Hate for Star Wars: The Last Jedi was spread online by bots and Russian trolls, study says

Report finds half of negative comments aimed at Rian Johnson’s movie came from Twitter bots or trolls, indicating fan backlash was overstated

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 11:08am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 11:08am

More than half of the hostile responses to The Last Jedi, episode eight of the Star Wars saga, were politically motivated trolling or the result of non-human bot activity, according to an academic paper published by a US digital media expert.

Morten Bay, a research fellow at the University of Southern California (USC), analysed Twitter activity about the film and concluded that more than 50 per cent of posts are by “bots, trolls/sockpuppets or political activists using the debate to propagate political messages supporting extreme rightwing causes and the discrimination of gender, race or sexuality. A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls.”

The supposed fan hostility to The Last Jedi is a well-known phenomenon, with actors such as Kelly Marie Tran experiencing extreme levels of abuse, and campaigns cropping up to lower the film’s rating on critics’ aggregators and fund a remake.

However, Bay’s research indicates that not only are negative comments on social media about the film in a minority, but the “anti-Jedi” campaign has been designed to serve a wider political purpose.

“The study finds evidence of deliberate, organised political influence measures disguised as fan arguments,” Bay wrote.

The likely objective of these measures is increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict, thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society.”

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Bay analysed the 960-plus accounts which had tweets aimed directly at Last Jedi director Rian Johnson for the seven months after the film opened on 13 December 2017.

He found that 21.9 per cent of users – less than a quarter – expressed a negative opinion of the film. After stripping out bots/trolls and users who had what he describes as “clear political agendas”, that figure dropped to 10.5 per cent. Bay concluded that real fan hostility to the film is much less than has previously been reported.

Of this negative group, Bay established that 50.9 per cent were “likely politically motivated or not even human”.

This included 5 per cent of posts by bots, 16 per cent by trolls or sockpuppets (of which half appeared to be Russian trolls), and close to 30 per cent by users with political agendas.

The Last Jedi’s director, Johnson, retweeted the paper, writing “what the top-line describes is consistent with my experience online”.

He added: “And just to be totally clear: this is not about fans liking or not liking the movie – I’ve had tons of great talks with great fans online and off who liked and disliked stuff. That’s what fandom is all about. This is specifically about a virulent strain of online harassment.”