First, they tried to undermine the 2016 election. Then they went after Star Wars.
Russia’s infamous shadow army of Twitter trolls and bots apparently helped exploit online arguments over race and gender about The Last Jedi after it came out in December, a new study found.
In a paper entitled “Weaponizing the Haters,” academic Morten Bay concluded that a deliberate, organized attempt was made to stir up racial and gender resentment by spurring fan arguments online. The film had won praise from critics for its inclusive cast. But it also spurred a lot of grumpy backlash on social media — some of which, Bay finds, was manufactured by trolls.
The apparent goal, he writes, was to foster further discord and dysfunction in American society, which is what intelligence analysts have said was also Moscow’s broader goal in meddling with the 2016 election.
More than half of the accounts that sent negative tweets directly at The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson were 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 wrote.
“A number of these appear to be Russian trolls,” he concluded.
Dr. Bay pointed out that more negative online reaction came from accounts linked to alt-right activists than suspected Russian bots. But the dovetailing of alt-right political forces with Russian accounts suggests that far-right sectors of the U.S. political scene are actually taking cues about how to behave online from Russian bots, Bay told VICE News.
“They’ve begun talking in the pattern of Russian trolls,” Bay said. “Instead of being interested in discourse, they’re being vitriolic and divisive. Even though they’re not organized, they appear to be using tactics they’ve learned from the Russians.”
This February, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies, including the so-called Russian “troll factory” based in St. Petersburg known as the Internet Research Agency, for interfering with the 2016 election via social media.
”Even though they’re not organized, they appear to be using tactics they’ve learned from the Russians.”
That indictment accused the operatives of having a “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The attempt to stir up trouble online about The Last Jedi suggests pop culture activities may serve as attractive targets for online agents, Bay said, in addition to political campaigns and elections.
“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,” He wrote.
But not all the haters were cyber-spies or political activists.
“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,” he writes.
Cover image: Mark Hamill poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' in London, Tuesday, Dec. 12th, 2017. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)