Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation.

Preprint (PDF Available)  · October 2018with76,745 Reads
Morten Bay at University of Southern California
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Abstract
Political discourse on social media is seen by many as polarized, vitriolic and permeated by falsehoods and misinformation. Political operators have exploited all of these aspects of the discourse for strategic purposes, most famously during the Russian social media influence campaign during the 2016 Presidential election in the United States and current, similar efforts targeting the U.S. elections in 2018 and 2020. The results of the social media study presented in this paper presents evidence that political influence through manipulation of social media discussions is no longer exclusive to political debate but can now also be found in pop culture. Specifically, this study examines a collection of tweets relating to a much-publicized fan dispute over the Star Wars franchise film Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The study finds evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments. 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. Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the U.S. alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation. 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. The paper concludes that while it is only a minority of Twitter accounts that tweet negatively about The Last Jedi, organized attempts at politicizing the pop culture discourse on social media for strategic purposes are significant enough that users should be made aware of these measures, so they can act accordingly.
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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Weaponizing the haters:
The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
Morten Bay, Ph.D.
Research Fellow, Center for the Digital Future
USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Author Note
A majority of this paper was completed while the author was a Ph.D. candidate at the
Department of Information Studies at University of California, Los Angeles. Send
correspondence to mortenbay@ucla.edu
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Abstract
Political discourse on social media is seen by many as polarized, vitriolic and permeated by
falsehoods and misinformation. Political operators have exploited all of these aspects of the
discourse for strategic purposes, most famously during the Russian social media influence
campaign during the 2016 Presidential election in the United States and current, similar efforts
targeting the U.S. elections in 2018 and 2020. The results of the social media study presented in
this paper presents evidence that political influence through manipulation of social media
discussions is no longer exclusive to political debate but can now also be found in pop culture.
Specifically, this study examines a collection of tweets relating to a much-publicized fan dispute
over the Star Wars franchise film Episode VII: The Last Jedi. The study finds evidence of
deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments. 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. Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the U.S. alt-right
movement, as well as the Russian Federation. 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. The paper
concludes that while it is only a minority of Twitter accounts that tweet negatively about The
Last Jedi, organized attempts at politicizing the pop culture discourse on social media for
strategic purposes are significant enough that users should be made aware of these measures, so
they can act accordingly.
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture
through social media manipulation
Introduction
Eight months after it opened in theaters, Star Wars fans were still talking about the eighth
installment in the series, The Last Jedi. During this time, media outlets ranging from lightweight
pop culture websites to serious news organizations have covered the “toxic” parts of Star Wars
fandom, i.e. fans who hate The Last Jedi and have gone as far as trying to crowdfund a remake of
the film, start Change.org petitions to strike the film from the Star Wars canon and create videos,
websites and social media content that criticize the film and call for the firing of its creators.
Supporters of The Last Jedi have called these detractors out as being predominantly white males
with misogynistic views that did not care for the film’s attempts at improving representation of
women and ethnic/sexual minorities in the Star Wars franchise. However, as the study presented
here shows, this is more than a heated discussion among social media users. There is also
evidence that the fan conflict caused by The Last Jedi stems from deliberate and organized social
media influence tactics employed by politically motivated operators, foreign and domestic. This
study explores how these political influence tactics on social media have jumped from political
debate spaces to pop culture discussions but with the same goals of disruption or persuasion.
Background
In National Review, conservative commentator Peter Spiliakos described the conflict as
having less to do with the movie itself and more to do with the political polarization of the
Western societies into which The Last Jedi was inserted: “People on both sides of this divide are
trying to drag the Star Wars franchise into a pre-existing set of obsessions and resentments.”
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(Spiliakos, 2018). Whether you agree with Spilliakos’ take on the film or not, this is an
intriguing perspective. How does the current state of political discourse and the use of social
media for political influence tactics in the U.S. and other Western nations impact our
consumption of pop culture phenomena such as The Last Jedi?
The Star Wars franchise is an interesting object of study in this regard. Even though it
was originally targeted towards cinema-goers who were too young to vote, Star Wars was
always double-coded, with layers oriented towards adults, often involving subjective critiques of
contemporary politics. Star Wars movies, books, video games, tv shows and comics have
consistently attempted to convey left-leaning values. For years, the franchise’s creator, George
Lucas, has explained the series’ impetus as partially being a comment on the Vietnam war,
which ended just as Lucas started work on the first Star Wars film. The evil, oppressive,
technologically and economically superior Empire represented the United States, while the far
less advanced, but resilient South Vietnamese forces and their unlikely victory inspired the
“good guys” in the Rebel Alliance (Teague Beckwith, 2017). Political commentary is even more
present in the so-called “Prequel trilogy” from 1999-2005, in which the hyper-capitalist Trade
Federation, led by Nute Gunray (named after Republican Newt Gingrich) becomes part of a
Separatist Alliance wishing to split the republic. In this parallel to the American civil war, the
Separatist Alliance represents the Confederate States of America. The conflict turns out to be the
work of Senator Sheev Palpatine, who uses his provisional war privileges as Chancellor of the
Republic to consolidate and centralize power at the executive level, similar to the changes in the
national security apparatus that happened under then-president George W. Bush, such as the
passing of the PATRIOT Act and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security.
The references to the Bush administration became even clearer, as Anakin Skywalker, about to
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become Darth Vader, paraphrases Bush’ words about Western nations and Islamist terrorists: “If
you are not with me, you are my enemy.(O’Connor, 2016).
It should not have been a surprise, then, that a new trilogy in the Star Wars franchise
would express equally left-leaning sentiments. Although they may still have a long way to go
(Brown, 2018), the Star Wars films, books, video games and tv shows produced after Disney’s
acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2014 have made an effort to address identity politics by introducing
strong, female protagonists and a better overall representation of gender, race/ethnicity and
sexuality. This was the case in the first entry in the new trilogy, The Force Awakens, but even
more so in The Last Jedi (Watercutter, 2017), which took a no-holds-barred approach to address
issues of gender discrimination, class warfare, the destructive character of masculine aggression
and war profiteering, while still working within the left-of-center frame constructed by George
Lucas in 1977. Criticism of American engagements in the Middle East had already been present
in the anthology film Rogue One from 2016 (Doescher, 2016), so clearly Star Wars was
continuing to convey left-of-center values in the new Disney era. In other words, in the more
than 40 years it has existed, politics and left-leaning political commentary has always been
woven into Star Warsfabric.
Still, it appears that some fans with right-leaning political views expected the franchise to
be politically neutral, as they went to see the first Star Wars film of the Trump presidency, The
Last Jedi. They saw its arguments for equality of gender, race and class as a new, leftist takeover
of Star Wars, even though Star Wars has always been politically left-leaning. The Last Jedi is
unique in that it landed in the Trump era, acting as a lightning rod at a time when most
cinemagoers had chosen a political side for or against the president and adopted the “obsessions
and resentments” of their political camp, with social media acting as the primary battleground.
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However, The Last Jedi fan conflict is not just an interesting case because it is a microcosm of
the overall political discourse on social media in the Trump era, but also because it is possible to
identify organized and deliberate attempts at right-wing political persuasion and/or defense of
conservative values as well as sexism, racism and homophobia in the social media discussions
about the film. It is important to stress, of course, that there are also a substantial number of fans
who simply think The Last Jedi is a bad film and who use social media to express their
disappointment. Regardless of motive, almost all negative fans express the belief that they are in
the majority and that most Star Wars fans dislike The Last Jedi.
In this paper, I analyze tweets sent to the director of The Last Jedi over the first seven
months after its release. In the collected data, I have discovered political agitation for right-wing
values using The Last Jedi as a placeholder for left-wing positions. Furthermore, it appears that
political activists have used bots and sock puppet accounts to troll left-wing fans, and there is
even evidence that Russian influence operators have inserted themselves into the debate to
exploit and exacerbate the conflict, thereby securing more media attention to the conflict, which
again helps spread the perception that America is divided and in chaos.
Thus, this analysis of tweets pertaining to The Last Jedi shows that pop culture spaces on
social media are now also political battlegrounds, vulnerable to the same organized vitriolic
polarization, manipulation and disinformation seen in the usual venues for political discourse
online.
Related work
Fandom studies, and studies of fan interactions online are now in their third decade, after
the groundbreaking early work of scholars such as Camille Bacon-Smith (1990), Nancy Baym
(1993), and Henry Jenkins (1992). From the beginning, the internal conflicts among fans and in
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the producer/fan relationship have been part of the equation, but since the emergence of social
media and their many affordances for community-building, expression and discussion, studies of
these conflicts have become more frequent among scholars. Authors like Stanfill (2018, 2010)
and Brock (2015) have brought attention to the heteronormativity and racial biases that live in
many fandoms (and also in fandom studies itself). Jonathan Gray turned his attention to those
who are not fans, or have explicit opinions about, e.g. a tv show and might even become ‘haters’,
a group he referred to as “anti-fans” (Gray, 2003). These are different from “fantagonists”, which
is a term introduced by Derek Johnson (2007) for fans who engage antagonistically with other
fans or with content producers, for example by belonging to certain factions of the fandom who
are in opposition to other factions with different views of the content. In the book chapter
introducing the concept, Johnson references Brooker’s (2002) important work on fan reactions to
the Star Wars prequel trilogy and the so-called Special Edition versions of the three original
films. The visceral and vitriolic fan reactions against these installments in the Star Wars series
were so prevalent in the pre-social media world that a documentary, The People vs George
Lucas, was produced on the subject.
In recent years, inspired in part by the #GamerGate controversy as well as other
controversies that followed it, scholars have been studying what is now termed “toxic” fandom.
The widespread view among academics is that some toxic fan practices are symptoms of
endemic and omnipresent misogyny in geek culture, entertainment fandoms and in society as a
whole (Massanari and Chess, 2018; Massanari, 2017; Salter and Blodgett, 2017; Todd, 2015;
Bealer, 2011). William Proctor is one of a few scholars trying to moderate this view. Though he
does not deny or downplay the presence of sexist, homophobic or racist fan practices, he argues
that some practices that often described as “toxic” in popular media outlets can be “benign” and
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“innocuous”. In his view, these defensive stances are indications of a “totemic nostalgia” which
ties the fan’s past to the present, (Proctor, 2018, 2017) and severing this connection by redefining
or changing the meaning of “totems” from the fan’s past is the psychological equivalent of
invalidating that part of the fan’s personality.
These scholars, and many more, have uncovered and unpacked fandom divides along
fault lines of gender, race and sexuality in much more impressive ways than I could ever aspire
to. Hence, I will mostly rely on the work mentioned above as accepted knowledge, focusing on
how these divisions are being exploited for political and agitation purposes. Literature on the
latter will be introduced below.
Method
Collecting Tweets
To ensure that the dataset was not restricted by adherence to certain hashtags or so large
that it would exceed my computational resources to analyze it, I chose to study to tweets
addressing The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson directly. Using Twitters Advanced Search
functionality, I retrieved 1273 tweets tweeted directly at the director’s Twitter handle,
“@rianjohnson” between December 13, 2017 and July 20, 2018. The Last Jedi opened in Europe
on December 13, so this is the earliest that substantial amounts of fan reactions could be
expected. Deadline restrictions meant that the tweet collection had to be performed on July 20,
but the frequency of tweets sent directly to Rian Johnson about The Last Jedi had also slowed
down substantially at this point even though the debate was still somewhat alive among fans
elsewhere. The tweets were scraped from Twitter using the Data Miner software. The data set
was subsequently cleaned, so that errors, duplicates and tweets from Rian Johnson himself were
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removed. Retweets and Likes that appeared as individual tweets in the data set were also
removed, as were GIFs and meme images in order to retain text searchability.
Collection practice
No mass collection of tweets has been performed, since only tweets engaging with Rian
Johnson have been collected. Only information stated publicly on the studied Twitter accounts
has been collected. All information revealed in this paper was immediately available and
observable on public Twitter accounts during the study period collection. Only handles of
subsequently deleted or suspended accounts are revealed in this paper. The collected data has
been stored on protected computing devices.
Sentiment analysis and coding
To ascertain how the collected tweets were attitudinally constituted, a manual sentiment analysis
was performed, which is described below. As one of the main objectives was to study the
political leanings of Star Wars fans engaging with Rian Johnson (rather than, say, how
frequently those fans tweet), series of several tweets expressing the same sentiment from the
same account was reduced to one. This reduced the number of tweets under analysis to 967 and
simultaneously created the foundation for the account analysis to follow, since each user was
now represented by one tweet.
I then performed a manual sentiment coding of the tweets. Benefits of this method have
been shown in several studies based on analyses of tweets (Borromeo and Toyama, 2015;
Chikersal et al., 2015; Barclay et al., 2014) and include higher accuracy than many current
automated systems, the ability to detect satire or sarcasm and a lower noise rate. The
disadvantage is that manual sentiment analyses are too labor-intensive to perform on large
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datasets, but with 967 tweets, the dataset in the present study was manageable enough for manual
coding and analysis.
As can be seen in the examples below, the language used in the dataset contained very
little nuance. Because of the unequivocally positive, negative or neutral nature of the collected
tweets, forcing a rating upon them for coding purposes could entail overinterpretation, raising the
risk of bias significantly. I believe the advantages of inference-driven generalizability and the
assessment of sample quality would undercut by this high risk of bias, and since the size of the
data set is significant, yet still manageable, I chose instead to adhere to a simple categorization of
the tweets as negative, positive and neutral.
An example of a negative tweet: "@rianjohnson your movie is the worst. I hate you for
ruining Star Wars.#kathleenkennedy #RianJohnson #TheLastJedi #starwars #thelastjediawful"
Other negative tweets included phrases such as “You ruined Star Wars”, “Please don’t make
anymore Star Wars movies” and tweets calling the film a “travesty”, “dumb”, “terrible”, “career-
endingly bad”, “abhorrent” and “awful”. Other users stated that Rian Johnson had committed a
“war crime” or should “be in jail”. Only four tweets out of the 967 were more gradual in their
negative sentiment, with one user admitting to being “in the camp that did not enjoy it though I
did appreciate the cinematography” and another calling a Johnson a “great filmmaker”, but also
stating that “I couldn’t disagree with your take on Luke more”. One of the four tweets came from
a user that adopted a slightly less negative stance towards the film months later. The four less
unequivocal tweets mentioned above were coded as negative.
On the positive side, tweets were similarly unequivocal. This is an example of a positive
tweet: @rianjohnson TLJ is a true piece of art! The symbolism and the chemistry between Rey
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and Kylo is just amazing. Thank you for such a great film.Other positive tweets used words
such as “great”, “beautiful”, “fantastic”and “wonderful”.
Finally, a number of tweets can be said to be value-neutral in that they engage in discourse on
the film, other Star Wars productions or general entertainment industry topics without passing
judgment on The Last Jedi. An example includes this tweet about another of Rian Johnson’s
films: “@rianjohnson Having binged Jean-Claude Van Johnson this weekend, I keep wondering
if you’ve seen it, if so, what you thought of all the Looper vs. Timecop arguments and lastly,
how many people have already asked you about this?”. It seems reasonable to assume that those
who actively chose to engage with Rian Johnson directly on Twitter in the seven months after the
release of The Last Jedi without expressing negative sentiments towards the film are also
unlikely to actually harbor such negative sentiments, at least to a significant extent.
It is also important to note that the abovementioned removal of GIFs and meme images
did not do a disservice to the coding of negative tweets, as even a quick overview of Rian
Johnson’s Twitter account from the study period makes it clear that positive or neutral
memes/GIFs far outnumber negative ones. Suspected use of sarcasm or irony was accounted for
by consulting the context of the tweet.
Account analysis
With the dataset now consisting of one tweet per account, it was now possible to turn
towards an analysis of the accounts of those users who had tweeted negatively. This analysis was
performed to ascertain whether the users behind the negatively-tweeting accounts were simply
sufficiently dissatisfied with the film that they felt the need to express this directly to the
director, or whether some and how many had a different, politically-motivated agenda
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driving their negativity. The analysis was also performed to identify any outside influence from
foreign actors and how many Twitter bots participated in the discussion.
For the account analysis, I divided the negatively-tweeting accounts into three categories,
coding them as Political agenda, Troll/Sock Puppets/bots and Real fantagonists. This was done
by visiting each of the negative twitter accounts and reading through tweets sent during the study
period. In cases where the account was highly active and contained large amounts of tweets or
retweets, I would conduct searches for specific terms on the accounts to find tweets that could
help place the account in one of the following three categories. The specific criteria for each
category are specified below.
1. Political agenda
These are accounts that are not solely Star Wars-related but most likely belong to real human
beings, rather than bots or sock puppeteers (see below), and from which several/frequent tweets
have been sent that can be characterized as overtly political. The tweets on these accounts would
typically only occasionally or even rarely be about Star Wars, but also consisted of comments on
current affairs or personal matters the latter being one of the indicators that the owner of the
account is not using the account as a sock puppet or exclusively for trolling activity. For
example, these accounts would also often include selfies or family photos containing objects or
persons that were consistent over time.
For accounts with high tweeting/retweeting activity, search terms such as “Trump” and
“SJW” (see below) were employed to discover tweets that might indicate a political stance, e.g.
for or against the current U.S. President.
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2. Troll/Sock Puppet/Bots
Several of the accounts could be identified as fully or semi-automated bot accounts,
accounts specifically used for trolling, the latter often involving accounts with a false identity,
also known as sock puppets. See below for definitions of these terms and how they were
detected/identified in the dataset.
3. Real fantagonists
These accounts are the most likely to belong to the human beings claiming to be behind
them, who are Star Wars fans who were simply disappointed by The Last Jedi for reasons other
than political ones and expressed their discontent to Rian Johnson on Twitter. These are fans
who tweet very frequently about Star Wars, and who also often did so before the study period.
Some of these accounts would contain the occasional politically-oriented tweet or retweet, but
not enough to indicate an agenda or position like the accounts in the Political Agenda category.
Identifying sock puppets, trolls and bots
Bots are software robots that post content to Twitter with little or no human control
involved, mostly for strategic purposes (Fitzgerald and Shaffer, 2017), and though bots are
widely used for strategic communication in commercial contexts, they are increasingly used in
political contexts as well, as witnessed in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 (Woolley and
Howard, 2017; Bessi and Ferrara, 2016) For bot detection, I used the Botometer tool created by
Indiana University Network Science Institute (IUNI) and the Center for Complex Networks and
Systems Research (OSOME, 2018), which relies on very large sets of social media data and
machine learning to ascertain the likelihood of a Twitter account being operated, fully or
partially, by a bot.
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Sock puppets are fake accounts where the user profile represents a user other than the
person actually controlling it. Kumar et al. (2017) show how sock puppet account owners use
their accounts to post content they would perhaps do not want to include on accounts disclosing
their real identities. They may also operate several such accounts. According to Kumar et al.,
sock puppets post more frequently than regular users and participate in more, mostly
controversial discussions than regular users (but rarely initiate them). They are often treated
harshly by the rest of the community and use more swearwords.
A troll is a human actor that “teases people to make them angry, or somebody who
offends people, or somebody who wants to dominate any single discussion, or somebody who
tries to manipulate people’s opinion (sometimes for money)” (Mihaylov and Nakov, 2016, p. 1).
Most often, trolls use sock puppet accounts or fake identities to avoid repercussions, but a small
number of trolls are willing to be identified by using their actual identities on their profiles.
Mutlu et al. extracted a range of troll characteristics from a data set of 95,578 tweets
posted by 3,321 users. Trolls may send more than 50 tweets a day, often exceed a 70% retweet
rate (70 retweets per 100 tweets sent), have follower/following ratios of 0.4 and below and often
don’t change the visual presentation of their profile very much from the default settings. Posts
from trolls/sock puppets contain simplified language with shorter sentences and words with
fewer syllables. Finally, sock puppets/trolls and bots often use handles that are “variations on a
single “real” name, variations on a celebrity name, and long strings of alphanumeric garbage
(often after a “real” name)” (Fitzgerald and Shaffer, 2017).
Russian trolls
In addition to the characteristics mentioned above, certain parameters indicate that a troll may
part of a Russian social media influence campaign. Several studies have shown how trolls have
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been used by the Russian Federation in order to sway public opinion in the west through social
media and online forums (Kaminska et al., 2017; Zelenkauskaite and Niezgoda, 2017; Giles,
2016; Lange-Ionatamishvili and Svetoka, 2015; Nimmo, 2015) The U.S. intelligence community
as well as social media platforms have acknowledged that such a campaign was ongoing during
study period, targeting the U.S. midterm election in November 2018 (Diamond, 2018; Gleicher,
2018). From studies of the Russian influence campaign of 2016, researchers have constructed
comprehensive lists of criteria for detection of Russian trolls. Analyzing 27,000 tweets from
1,000 Twitter users submitted to the U.S. Congress as part of a list of 2,752 accounts identified
by Twitter as having ties to the Russian “troll farm” Internet Research Agency, Zannettou et al.
found that Russian trolls usually target “very specific world events” and “political threads”, i.e.
they insert themselves in, and often solely focus on, discussions that take up space in American
media discourse. They also find that Russian trolls “…adopt different identities over time, i.e.,
they “reset” their profile by deleting their previous tweets and changing their profile
name/information” (Zannettou et al., 2018, p. 1) and prefer the Twitter web client over the
mobile client. They predominantly report their location (if at all) to be in the U.S., Germany and
Russia, mostly tweet in the languages of these nations, and can be observed randomly switching
from one to the other. They also often pretend to be sources of information or news outlets and
“nudge” other users to follow them. Their accounts are often created just before or just after
events relating to topics that the troll is focused on. Llewellyn et al., analyzing the same 2,752
alleged Russian troll accounts, found that Russian Troll activity peaks at certain points in time.
Zannettou et al. also noticed this, finding that Russian troll tweets had two peaks on a typical day
during the 2016 presidential election, where their activity was higher than the established
baseline for Twitter. Tweets from Russian trolls exceeded the base line between 7am and 10pm
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and then again - more substantially - between 12 noon and 5pm UTC. Russian trolls also like to
retweet other trolls, contact prominent users through mentions and they frequently attempt to
organize “political events and abusive behaviour and harassment” (Llewellyn et al. 2018, p. 1).
In the present study, the Twitter accounts were categorized after how many of these
criteria they met, and those that met a large majority of them would only be placed in the
Troll/Bot/Sock Puppet or Russian Troll categories after an extra, qualitative inspection. It is
important to mention here that it is widely considered almost impossible to attribute any sort of
cyberattack or strategic operation in the online sphere to an actor with absolute certainty, due to
the many opportunities for anonymization, masking of IP addresses, adoption of false identities
online, etc. (Lobel, 2012; Dipert, 2010; Geers, 2010). This also applies to the trolls and bots
found in this study. Though the above described classification has been performed with rigor and
the accounts in Troll/Bot/Sock Puppet category fulfill most of the criteria listed, these accounts
should be viewed as having a high likelihood of being trolls/sock puppets, bots and Russian
trolls. No absolute attributions are claimed.
Findings
Negative-to-positive/neutral fan ratio
Among the 967 tweets analyzed, 206 expressed a negative sentiment towards the film and its
director, which is 21.9% or a little more than one in five fans. This number includes all negative
tweets analyzed, i.e. also those who came from the 44 accounts identified as bots, sock puppet
accounts and trolls. It also includes 61 users who showed clear political agendas in their tweets
against the film. Thus, the number of fans whose tweets are purely motivated by a negative
stance towards the film is 101 or 10,5%.
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Overall, 50.9% of those tweeting negatively was likely politically motivated or not even
human.
Some bots a lot of trolls
Using the Botometer mentioned in the Method section, 11 out of the of 206 accounts expressing
negative sentiments were identified as bots.
I identified 33 of the 206 negative accounts as trolls and/or sock puppets. Besides
meeting a majority of the detection criteria mentioned in the methods section, these accounts
would mostly tweet or retweet right-wing messages alongside their attacks on Rian Johnson and
The Last Jedi. All of these troll/sock puppet accounts were created or became active after being
dormant for months or years during the study period, most of them around the time when The
Last Jedi opened in theaters and the first negative fan reactions began being posted to Twitter.
This may indicate that the accounts were created or revived specifically for trolling behavior
related to The Last Jedi or using that debate as a platform for activities related to other subjects.
16 of these 33 troll/sock puppet accounts appear to be Russian trolls, or at least possess
several of the Russian troll characteristics presented above. 7 of the 16 had auto-generated
handles consisting of a very common, English name followed by a series of seemingly random
digits, and five of those seven had not uploaded a profile image, a combination which according
to the studies mentioned above, is a typical characteristic of Russian troll accounts. One such
account tweeted at Rian Johnson, with only little lingual variation from tweet to tweet, that he
“ruined Star Wars” no less than 13 times during a three-week period, along with other tweets
disparaging the director. In addition to these tweets, the vast majority of other tweets on the
account were retweeted messages from Donald Trump and black conservative activist and
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commentator Candace Owens. 11 of the 16 accounts suspected of being run by Russian trolls
almost exclusively tweeted about The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson or right-wing U.S. politics,
typically retweeting personalities from the right or alt-right. Eight of the 16 had their primary
Twitter activity within the timeframe established by Zannettou et al., The coordinated efforts
typical of Russian troll activity was also seen in a somewhat offensive tweet originally posted by
the account @1popculturefan, which has since been taken down during one of Twitter’s purges
of Russian-controlled accounts post-study period. The same tweet, along with several other
double-postings, was also tweeted by a still-active account using the deliberately misspelled
name of a well-known Hollywood actor (another indicator of Russian troll activity), with the
same “1” in front of it. @1popculturefan is not the only account that has been deleted or
suspended during troll and bot purges by Twitter after the data collection took place. The same
applies to these accounts that were identified as Russian trolls during the study period:
@MarcoSo94862885, @VPalmera and @ThatNikkaGeeked.
Six of the 16 accounts have an extremely high retweet rate. Nine accounts have been
through the resets” that are highly characteristic of Russian troll accounts, in which the account
name (not the Twitter handle) is changed, tweets from before a certain time are deleted, or they
go dormant for long periods of time, but then become active when certain events occur that other
Russian trolls also comment on. Four accounts present themselves as a type of news source and
encourage other users to follow them.
An example of an account that almost sums up these Russian troll characteristics carries
an auto-generated handle and has almost exclusively tweeted disparagingly about The Last Jedi,
and engaged in “anti-SJW” rhetoric. In the middle of these tweets, the account all of a sudden
tweeted in support of Donald Trump during the latter’s visit to the United Kingdom, which was
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
19
met with large protests in London. Besides not containing any personal information, having no
profile picture and other Russian troll characteristics, this account only posted 9 tweets in more
than a year from its creation in January 2017 to February 2018, all of them regarding a particular
Anime series on YouTube. From April 2018 onwards, during the lead-up to the release of The
Last Jedi for the home video market, and in anticipation of Solo: A Star Wars Story opening, the
account suddenly comes to life and begins tweeting frequently about The Last Jedi, identity
politics and Rian Johnson. After the data was collected, the account has been through a “reset”
where many of its public tweets have been deleted, leaving only its replies.
One of the above-mentioned accounts which has now been deleted by Twitter exhibited
some of the lingual characteristics that researchers have observed in Russian troll tweets. On July
11, @MarcoSo94862885 tweeted: “So, now explain why Mark Hamil didn't like Luje in TLJ?”.
The simplicity and brevity of the language, as well as the fact that this purported Star Wars fan
doesn’t spell “Hamill” or “Luke” correctly, are all indicators that raises suspicions. In
combination with other characteristics (auto-generated handle, lack of personal matter on
account etc.), the verbiage suggests that the user may be a Russian troll. The literature suggests
that Russian trolls primarily use mobile apps for Twitter posts, and thus auto-correct and word
suggestion on smartphones disguise any poor English skills to an extent.
No similar accounts were found on the positive/neutral side, where most accounts
signaled that they belonged to an identifiable human being that had a high likelihood of being
real (i.e. the accounts contained personal photos etc.) There were also no bots found among the
accounts posting positive/neutral tweets.
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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Political agenda
61 accounts could be characterized as having a political agenda. Unlike troll/sock puppet
accounts or bots, these accounts were mostly characterized by the same human identifiability
mentioned in the methods section.
A majority of the accounts in this category would tweet frequently and positively about
party-based politics, e.g. about President Trump and his administration or retweet supporters of
the president or the president’s own tweets. In example of more issue-based political activism,
the user behind one of the analyzed Twitter accounts replied to a postsss from Rian Johnson in
which a quote from The Last Jedi was used on a sign protesting the National Rifle Association.
The user tweeted directly at the director: “Whoever was over quality control at Lucasfilm was
obviously having "naptime" when you presented the script for The Last Jedi. After the crap I
witnessed in that movie it figures you'd be a gun grabber.”
Some were less focused on politics of party or specific issues and more on identity
politics, posting anti-feminist or anti-homosexuality messages, and tweets of a racist nature were
also frequent among the accounts in this category. In one example, a user tweeted to comedic
actor Seth Rogen after he reacted negatively to the ‘Remake The Last Jedi’ project: “You know
how I know you're gay? You don't want to remake last Jedi”. A majority of the accounts in the
Political Agenda category tweeted antagonistically about “SJW” – Social Justice Warriors, often
referring to an SJW “agenda” not just put in place in the Star Wars universe by Rian Johnson,
Lucasfilm by way of CEO Kathleen Kennedy, and Disney, but also in American society by
liberals and left-wing activists. The SJW term emerged from the #GamerGate controversy
(Chess and Shaw, 2015), and has since entered dictionaries as a pejorative term for people who
express or promote progressive views (Ohlheiser, 2015). But, as Massanari and Chess as well as
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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Brock point out, the SJW term is rarely used about people who promote progressive views about
e.g. the national economy or the environment. The “social justice” in the SJW term is primarily
used to refer (pejoratively) to those who support and promote equality of gender, race and
sexuality. Brock describes the perception of an SJW by those who use the term thus: “an SJW
is…overly concerned with online reputation and obsessed with being politically correct.
Coincidentally, the SJW’s activities in this definition revolve around perceived injustices to
women and people of color” (Brock, 2015, p. 1). Examples include:
“@rianjohnson The more I read your posts on twitter the more the terrible direction TLJ
went in makes sense to me. You SJWs ruin everything”
“…politics is certainly a part of the reason I don't like TLJ; Rose Tico's deeply moronic
social justice lectures for instance. The SJWs within Lucasfilm have made this a proxy
battleground”,
“…dont be fooled #SJWs dont want equality they only truly want what fits their agenda.
Look no further than TLJ. Every single male character was either a coward, an idiot, or evil“,
and
“The reason [Kathleen Kennedy] did not get fired after #BoycottSolo is because Disney
cant fire employees with an SJW agenda because then the media will demonize Disney as sexist
and racist. Disney/Hollywood will not let that happen.”
Several males in this category also express anger over what they perceive to be feminist
agitation in The Last Jedi:
“…if you can’t see the TLJ was basically “the woman’s march in space” than I have to
believe you also have an agenda. “,
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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“I will never watch anything Star Wars that you or Kathleen “The Force is Female”
Kennedy is associated with ever again”, and
“Dont let this distract you from the fact that Rian Johnson killed General Ackbar
offscreen to make room for his feminist subplot... #Fact
In this regard, it is also worth pointing out how the negative and positive/neutral
sentiments divide across gender identification. Of the accounts whose owners identify clearly as
female, 108 tweeted positively about The Last Jedi, whereas only five tweeted negatively. The
remaining accounts either belong to owners who identify clearly as male or whose owner does
not declare any gender identity.
Discussion
During the study period, in June 2018, one of the lead actors in The Last Jedi, Kelly Marie Tran,
stopped using social media due to what she later called “online harassment” from fans who held
negative views of The Last Jedi (Tran, 2018; Chuba, 2018). This led several commentators to
call out the negativity towards the film as being driven by sexism and racism (Menta, 2018;
Zimmerman, 2018; Mendelson, 2018b; Holland, 2018), something that Proctor (2018) also
addresses as mentioned earlier. Based on the findings in the present study, it is not fair to
generalize and paint all of the The Last Jedi detractors as alt-right activists, racists or
misogynists. However, the findings above show that a majority of the negatively-poised users
included in the study do express such sentiments, either in The Last Jedi-related tweets or in
other tweets on their accounts. These identity-based political values combine with traditional
party politics and issue-based politics to represent a politicization of Star Wars critique which is
found in more than half of the negative accounts in this study.
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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Whether the criticism comes from a Russian troll/bot or from a fan who feels increasingly distant
from the values presented in the new Star Wars films, the objective of their actions is a political
one. 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.
Because of the limitations on the data set and the less-than-comprehensive nature of this
study, generalizing and extending this to the entire Star Wars fandom should happen with
extreme caution. not all disappointed fans are Twitter users and not all disappointed fans go as
far as tweeting directly at Rian Johnson in anger. The same can be said about fans who view the
film positively, of course, which is why this study looks at a specific discourse situation as a
measure of the situation. It is nonetheless noteworthy that a majority of the negativity stems from
politicized accounts which are often part of an organized attempt to disrupt and sow discord
using the The Last Jedi controversy.
Cognitive dissonance as manipulation tactic
With respect to those individuals who express right-wing political views on their Twitter
accounts and who dislike The Last Jedi, I argue that the findings show indications of classic
cognitive dissonance leading to attitude change, as described by Festinger (1962). There is a
close similarity between being a “fan”, or supporter, of a political figure and participating in pop
culture fandom. Sandvoss (2013) and Wilson (2011) show how the same psychological
mechanisms are in place for both these types of engagement, and that there is a strong link
between supporting a particular, political viewpoint and the expectation of it to be respected,
represented or even amplified in pop culture fandom. When these expectations are not met,
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cognitive dissonance can occur, and I argue that for many of the fans in the political agenda
category, this is in fact the case. The perceived politics of The Last Jedi are in conflict with some
fans’ perception of Star Wars as family entertainment devoid of politics, which was never the
case. The realization that Star Wars takes up a position that is left-of-center, seems to have
created much dissonance in the minds of some fans of with a right-of-center political orientation.
But rather than confront the well-documented fact that Star Wars has always leaned left, they
instead change their beliefs, convincing themselves that in fact, Star Wars was never left-of-
center or feminist until Rian Johnson made The Last Jedi and Kathleen Kennedy was put in
charge of Lucasfilm, post-Disney acquisition. In a significant number of the tweets analyzed,
these fans blame Johnson, Kennedy and Disney, sometimes collectively, sometimes as
individuals, for this supposed leftist/feminist turn in the Star Wars franchise.
Disinformation and Russian influence operations
These instances of cognitive dissonance further raise the likelihood of Russian influence
operators being present. Several scholars (Rider and Peters, 2018; Fuchs, 2017; Howard et al.,
2017; Kaminska et al., 2017) have shown how Russian influence operators exploit precisely this
type of cognitive dissonance to persuade individual social media users that their values are under
attack, cultivating and advancing polarization and disparity. This breakdown of American’s
sense of community was and continues to be the purpose of the Russian social media influence
campaign targeting the West (Giles, 2016; Nissen, 2015). Getting the media to pay attention to
such conflicts only amplifies them, further advancing the Russian objective.
Cognitive dissonance also enables the spread of misinformation, which works to the
advantage of the Russian actors, but is independent of such foreign influence campaigns. As
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
25
shown by Doty (2013) and Kata (2012) in the case of the anti-vaccination debate, those
participating in online debates, regardless of platform, will distort facts and spread them as
misinformation to support their own argument. This often happens through the establishment of
cognitive authority, such as citing first-hand knowledge, uncritically referencing dubious source
material or assuming causality where none has been established (Doty, 2013). As mentioned in
the introduction, Fantagonists have claimed that a majority of Star Wars fans dislike The Last
Jedi. They base the claim on “evidence” such as The Last Jedi not performing as well as The
Force Awakens at the box office and later on Blu-Ray/DVD, the user-generated score on the
Rotten Tomatoes website and the fact that Solo: A Star Wars Story which opened about five
months after The Last Jedi flopped at the box office, as this was supposedly because of a fan
boycott. All of these claims have been easily and thoroughly debunked or shown as having no
evidentiary basis (Mendelson, 2018a; Robles, 2018; The Numbers, 2018; Lovett, 2017). Yet,
fantagonists still propagate this misinformation, which is then amplified by bots and sock puppet
accounts for political purposes, just as it did during the Russian influence campaign during the
2016 U.S. Presidential election.
Star Wars fandom is not the only cultural or pop culture sphere in which these influence
operations are conducted. In February 2018, NBC News published a data set of more than
200,000 tweets collected from accounts that Twitter deleted after ascertaining that they were
Russian troll accounts and part of the influence operation (Popken, 2018). The data set clearly
shows that the Russian trolls were not just spreading messages of a political nature but were
using engagements in pop culture and related fandoms as either an alibi to distract from their
other trolling activities, or to insert themselves in online social groups that they may not reach
through pure political messaging. By doing the latter, the trolls were able to advance their
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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disinformation practices and create division within the fandoms they infiltrated. Examples from
the NBC/Twitter data set includes a number of Russian trolls that played along with the then-
popular Comedy Central tv show @Midnight’s ‘Hashtag Wars’, engaging with the online geek
culture community @Blackgirlnerds, debating European soccer teams such as Manchester
United and F.C. Barcelona and yes, also engaging with the Star Wars fan community, even then.
The infectious nature of trolling
Finally, the findings show indications of a much simpler explanation of the behavior of some
negative-sentiment fans, especially those who are not in the Political Agenda category or can be
categorized as trolls, bots or sock puppets. Cheng et al., in one of the of the most rigorous studies
of its kind, state that “trolling is better explained as situational (i.e. as a result of the user’s
environment) than as innate (i.e. an inherent trait)” (Cheng et al., 2017, p. 11). In other words,
the authors show how anyone can engage in trolling behavior, even if only a few users or user
accounts can be categorized as trolls. In the present case, this explains the similarity of negative
remarks and tweets about The Last Jedi, even though the accounts and users posting them are
different in nature. Even those who do not have political agendas or are sock puppets, troll
accounts or bots, but simply disappointed fans, engage in troll-like behavior, and this was
certainly the case in the tweets collected for this study.
The main finding by Cheng et al. is that mood and context are the main proponents of
trolling behavior. The authors show how participating in a thread which already contains troll-
like comments increases the individual’s likelihood of engaging in trolling behavior. They also
provide quantitative evidence of the rather intuitive notion that the poster’s mood, as determined
by the emotional state and physical environment of the person behind the screen, impacts the
likelihood of trolling, with a negative mood leading to more troll-like behavior. The authors also
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27
observe how anger can spill over from one online discussion an unrelated one because of the
accumulative nature of anger over comments read online, or feelings of anger stemming from
completely unrelated incidents, such as losing a quiz on a web site. Simply put, an isolated
comment or tweet filled with negativity or anger towards a specific subject, is likely to represent
emotions that are also derived from other activities that are unrelated to the topic in the tweet or
comment. Cheng et al. also show how most trolling behavior displayed by non-trolls occurs late
in the day and early in the work week, when energy levels and mood may be less conducive to
respectful discourse.
These suggested catalysts of trolling behavior are invisible to anyone who casually enters
a discussion on Twitter, perhaps having been led there by Twitter’s recommendation and sorting
algorithms. These factors will likely not play into any decision to react upon viewing negative
tweets, but rather, following Cheng et al., the user is more likely to join in the trolling behavior if
it is already ongoing (and is predisposed, in the present case, from being disappointed by The
Last Jedi). The findings clearly show a clustering of negative tweets around specific times,
which would indicate that several instances of the mechanism described by Cheng et al. was in
effect during the study period. This could, however, also be impacted by the potential influence
by Russian trolls, as these also share this propensity for activity peaks. Whether the peaks of
negative tweeting activity in specific moments are mostly dominated by one or the other will
require further studies of the data and represents an opportunity for further research.
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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Conclusion
Assuming that the collected dataset of Twitter interactions with The Last Jedi director
Rian Johnson is at least to an extent representative of Star Wars fandom on Twitter, there are a
number of statements that can be made on the basis of the collected data.
First and foremost, the data does not support claims that a majority of fans are so
dissatisfied with The Last Jedi that they wish to boycott further Star Wars releases under Disney
ownership. Whether you consider the 21.9% (including, political activists, bots and trolls/sock
puppets), or the 10.5% (excluding them) tweets expressing a negative attitude towards The Last
Jedi, it is clear that a majority is satisfied, more than satisfied or non-committal in their attitudes.
It is also shown that a majority of the negative fans with clear gender identifications identify as
male, with only a miniscule fraction of negative fans identifying as female. Approximately one
in three negative fans express misogynist, anti-progressive, anti-social justice or conservative
views. When some detractors of The Last Jedi correctly claim that it is an injustice to place these
labels on all negative fans, these detractors also have to contend with the fact that the labels
actually fit a large portion of their faction.
A number of fans feel like Star Wars has been politicized by Lucasfilm and Disney, 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. The divisive
political discourse of the study period and the months leading up to it, has likely primed these
fans with a particular type of political messaging that is in direct conflict with the values
presented in The Last Jedi.
The presence of organized influence measures, i.e. bots, sock puppet and troll accounts, is
further indications of attempts to manipulate Star Wars fans as part of a political persuasion
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
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tactic. This similarity to political influence campaigns on social media domestic or foreign is
also underscored by the manner in which misinformation appears and (sometimes strategically)
gets propagated. The same misinformation mechanisms as seen in the anti-vaccination
controversy and the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. are present in the debate over The Last
Jedi. The three latter points are likely the most important contribution of this small study.
However, the assertions made in this article must be considered within the limited scope
of the data set, which may or may not limit generalizability of the findings. Another problem for
replicability is the fact that Twitter is a dynamic forum and only tweets from selected accounts
are archived outside the platform’s own servers. This means that data collected during the study
period in this paper may not correspond to later searches because users may have deleted tweets
or taken down their accounts a general problem with research based on Twitter data.
Yet, even considering the limitations of the data set, there are enough indications that pop
culture debates on social media are being politicized, sometimes for strategic purposes that have
nothing to do with the subject under debate. As the debate on misinformation, political
communication and regulation of social media continues, researchers studying these matters may
find it beneficial to turn their attention to pop culture and how political messaging is propagated
in its fandoms.
Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation
30
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