'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' reactions show how right-wing Twitter agitators adopted Russian tactics

My study suggests that some conservatives activists have found Russian trolling tactics useful to spread their own messages.
Image: Star Wars, Kelly Marie Tran, John Boyega
Kelly Marie Tran, John Boyega star in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" Film - 2017D James / Lucasfilm/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
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Which version of “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” did you see?

Did you watch the complex, philosophical film that reinvigorated the saga? Or were you exposed to the radical leftist, hyper-feminist propaganda film? Or did you see the one where director Rian Johnson killed Luke Skywalker, broke the hearts of all fans and caused a boycott of the saga? In Star Wars fandom on social media, all three exist at once.

As a social media researcher and Star Wars devotee of four decades, I have followed the Last Jedi debate intensely since it began in 2017. It fascinated me to see how the first Star Wars film of the post-truth Trump era had some fans clinging to dubious sources and unverifiable misinformation to assert that the film they saw was the true Last Jedi — and that the two others were definitely not.

So I did what social scientists do and began collecting data for a potential study; by the summer of 2017, several spikes of unrest had occurred in the Star Wars fandom on social media, particularly involving director Rian Johnson’s Twitter account. Observing these spikes, I noticed a familiar pattern, and I knew that my study wasn’t going to be about the diverging perceptions of the Last Jedi audience after all.

I had first encountered what we now call “Russian trolls” in 2015 and decided to study them as part of my Ph.D. dissertation work; needless to say, the subsequent events complicated the process somewhat. By the time I finished my dissertation in spring 2018, I had become quite adept at spotting Twitter trolls — not just Russian ones — using methods developed by scholars much smarter than me.

In short, there are certain characteristics that are unique to Russian trolls, like their accounts being created years prior, then laying dormant for years, only to be suddenly activated with the single purpose of spreading negative messages about an issue (be it the elections or “The Last Jedi”). Other tell-tale signs include sudden shifts from one language to another, the timing of the posts (during the Russian work day instead of the American one), verbal patterns and retweet vs. tweet rates.

With this ability to analyze troll-ish behavior, I returned to the Last Jedi data set I’d collected in 2017, and there the trolls were. Hiding behind fake, so-called sock puppet, accounts, they were spreading negativity indiscriminately in short word bursts. A few of the accounts even bore telltale signs of being Russian.

The thing is, though, that I only found 16 accounts I could even tentatively identify as Russian trolls, out of the 967 accounts I was studying in total. Without access to Twitter’s internal data, I wasn’t able to confirm their Russian origins with certainty. But Russian trolls have been all over the Internet since 2014; it would be weird if they weren’t in the Star Wars community.

However, there was another, more prevalent finding in the data that concerned me much more than the prevalence of potential Russian actors. Political operatives, mostly right-wing and often seemingly domestic in origin, were showing up in Twitter discussions about The Last Jedi, pushing political agendas ranging from gun rights to anti-feminism. Tweets would consist of two lines attacking the film or Rian Johnson personally, segueing directly into pro-life slogans or racist remarks — and they would be posted by people who only rarely engaged with Star Wars fandom otherwise. They seemed to imitate the Russian troll strategy: Less consensus, more chaos.

I had never before seen such deliberate attempts to try to connect an already contentious fandom debate with bigger, completely unrelated political issues (for those who haven’t seen them, Star Wars movies skew center-left, Hollywood-style, but avoid addressing Earthly political issues directly).

In my mind, the push to polarize the community and turn fan against fan will force social media users to be on the lookout even in their safest havens. That, not the potential presence of a few Russians in the threads, was the study’s most important takeaway.

Social media platforms are now integral to news distribution, communication and information dissemination in our society. The current regulatory debates aside, it is time to have a serious, public conversation about social media cultures. But even the response to my small academic paper shows that some people aren’t ready for that.

The study was peer reviewed, accepted for publication in a top journal in my field and, as is common among academics on Twitter, I shared a draft of paper so that fellow academics could take a look. Then Rian Johnson retweeted the study, followed by several fans; the news media began writing about the paper, focusing on those few Russian trolls. All of a sudden, YouTubers started posting some very ill-informed protest videos and my Twitter account was blowing up with people who didn’t want to be accused of being “Russian bots” just because they didn’t like "The Last Jedi."

I’ve studied social media long enough not to care about that. But here’s what I do care about: What my study reveals isn’t some old news about Russian interference. It reveals that users must now wrap themselves in the same paranoia and hyper-vigilance they employ when walking around in a foreign, major city if they want to avoid political manipulation on social media, regardless of where the other users are located.

We all deserve better. Leaders of social media companies have to acknowledge that their platforms will never be neutral and stop pretending that they are. Twitter can ban sock puppet accounts, bots or trolls — if they want.

Of course, this won’t stop many of the people I spotted in my study, who just want to spread political vitriol in unrelated contexts. Only users can change that, by demanding transparency from those who express themselves on social media like they probably never would in public.

Anonymity must always be an option, with whistleblowing or privately associating with like-minded people being just two good reasons. But it’s also okay for users to demand that an online adversary put a real name and face to their offensive statements if they want to be taken seriously. It’s okay to ignore, be dismissive of or even block someone on social media who is bold enough to be vitriolic but hides behind an avatar. And the media shouldn’t treat someone going by “FeminazisSuck88” as a legitimate representative of an individual, let alone a fan base.

If we can build that culture of accountability as users, maybe the debates leading up to Star Wars Episode IX will be about the politics in that galaxy far, far away… rather than the politics surrounding those watching.

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