After the release of "Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi," were you shocked and dismayed by the level of divisiveness online regarding the latest adventures in a galaxy far, far away?
You could be forgiven for deleting your Twitter account if you expressed excitement about the elevation of racial diversity in the new "Star Wars" film, or bemoaning the arc of the new heroine, Rey. The dark side was strong with reactions to this film, and it’s possible Russia had something to do with it — no, seriously.
A new study from researcher Morton Bay, titled "Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation," asserts that Russia may have actively played a role in salting the wounds of "Star Wars" fandom with malicious online social media activity.
I know what you’re thinking. Really? First, they say Russia stole the 2016 election and Robert Mueller has free rein to pursue a conspiracy to exhaustion, and Putin's next target was "Star Wars?"
It sounds ridiculous. But consider for a moment that the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies have never been able to prove Russia “hacked” the 2016 election, while they have been crystal clear that Russia’s main focus has been to “sow discord and divisiveness” in America. Facebook corroborated these claims with their own investigations into foreign coordination on their social media platform. Facebook’s chief of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, revealed over the summer that Russian agencies were linked to numerous Facebook accounts engaged in propagandizing to the American Left and Right on hot-button cultural issues. Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick, and cultural heritage debates were all in the crosshairs of troll campaigns — so why not go after "Star Wars" too?
Bay’s study was conducted out of the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. He found that out of 967 tweets about "The Last Jedi" analyzed, 206 were negative in nature and half were generated by politically motivated accounts including bots, “sock puppets,” and trolls. Russian agencies use all 3 types of accounts to muddy discourse and provoke strong reactions online. Discussion and debate around "The Last Jedi" was riddled with the presence of these type of accounts on Twitter, and there’s enough evidence to tie some of these accounts to the Russian government.
Knowing what accounts are Russia-linked is sort of like trying to hold Jell-O. They take on new identities, reset accounts, change basic information, and do so systematically. Bay's study offers a look into the process, and it’s worth reviewing for yourself.
"Star Wars" sits at a unique crossroads in our culture. Historically, it is a universally beloved franchise, spanning multiple generations of fans and has generated a shared culture of communicating basic moral and political arguments like no other modern piece of art.
Don’t like your teacher? You can call them Darth Vader to just about anyone and the reference won’t be lost. Concerned about your best friend's new significant other? One might claim their friend has gone to the dark side in their dating life, and the connection will almost certainly register with whomever you’re speaking with. It can’t be understated just how special this is for a culture with so many divides and growing differences.
If you’re Russia, and your goal is “sow discord and divisiveness” in the U.S., fomenting angst around the supposed takeover of "Star Wars" by “feminazi” Katheleen Kennedy, starting debates around the Republican or Democratic orthodoxy of Darth Vader, or beating the drum about “affirmative-action casting” in Rian Johnson’s "The Last Jedi" is an easy and emotional target.
Maybe you hated "The Last Jedi" and aren’t working for Vladimir Putin — that’s fine. After all, the film still sits at a dismal 45 percent for audience reception on Rotten Tomatoes (factoring in that there was some foul play by angry fans from the dark side of Reddit). As far as "Star Wars" films go, "The Last Jedi" was new territory in terms of style and story — for some, it remains an unsurmountable grievance. I know it is for me.
What’s important though, as this study by Morton Bay shows, is that when you get online you are on a 21st century battlefield. Not every argument you get into on Twitter or Facebook is authentic, and your anger whether righteous or petty is being sought after by foreign actors in a methodical and malicious way.
Russia doesn’t have much to gain in immediate future by crossing swords with the United States, they’d rather we fight among ourselves — to whatever end.
Again, an academic study on the role of nameless Russians to tear down "Star Wars" may sound comical. But when you think about what really brings Americans happiness, it is not unity on who sits in the White House, it is our ability to sit beside one another in a dark movie theater and smile as the galaxy is saved once again from darkness.
Stephen Kent (@Stephen_Kent89) is the spokesperson for Young Voices and host of Beltway Banthas, a Star Wars & politics podcast in D.C.