On Monday, the day of the long-awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer, three malevolent tricksters were able to convince media all over the world that people were boycotting the newest Star Wars film because the cast was too racially diverse.
As ridiculous as it all seems, this type of subterfuge happens… more than it should. Whether it's the 24 hour news cycle; the way modern news has come to lean heavily on Twitter and "the Great Outrage Machine" that thrives on the internet; or a combination of many things, the media remains highly manipulateable.
On Sunday night, a user named DarklyEnlighten, a self-admitted troll known for provoking conservatives, was the first to tweet the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII, noting that the movie had "barely any whites in it."
Genophilia, another self-admitted troll that likes targeting conservatives, jumped into the hashtag and feigned offense at the casting choice, a message that was then further amplified by user OfficialCritDis, who identifies as "A major amplifier of Alt-Right propaganda, and inciter of online riots."
These three continued to tweet racist statements about the new Star Wars (that the movie is a new Planet of the Apes, for example) under the hashtag, as well as sentiments about how they want their tweets to trend and how people are going to be so angry at them—a dead give-away that they were hoping to inflate an artificial scandal.
By Monday morning, the regular, respectable people of Twitter had discovered these troll tweets, and were rightly offended. Without checking out the rest of the troll's timelines, these tweets were taken as sincere. Who has time to check out if people are who they say they are anyway, right? Twitter is all about knee-jerk, snappy comments, and the platform promotes the most outrageous and definitive.
It was these regular, respectable people on Twitter that got the hashtag to trend with angry responses, wry jokes, and reminders that the original cast was actually pretty diverse.
Not everyone was impressed, though.
"Oh wow, a bunch of social outcasts, teenagers and troll accounts are spamming a hashtag," a user wrote. "I didn't realize that was the definition of a 'happening'."
According to Mashable, which had the social media analytics firm Fizziology analyze the hashtag, 94 percent of the tweets were "expressing outrage over its existence" while the remaining 6 percent were "racist trolls trying to get people mad." Some genuine users were happy to join in on the conversation, believing they'd found kindred spirits, but it was overwhelmingly reactions from people who were appalled.
If there was ever any doubt, the most notorious troll in the world, Andrew "weev" Aurenheimer, tweeted how great of a farce the whole hashtag was last night, basically confirming this as the work of trolls.
So basically, to recap: The hashtag #boycottStarWars became a weird hybrid of trolls trolling regular people and regular people who thought they were trolling racists with jokes then attracted more self-identified trolls (from 4chan), until it was a big ball of trolls trolling trolls trolling trolls.
Still, the hashtag raked in misconstrued attention. It became the number one trending topic in the United States, and received more than 3,000 media mentions even in outlets located in the UK and Australia. Hardly anyone covered the reality, however.
The narrative on Monday was that this was a movement of racists, not that a large number of people were speaking out against a small handful of racists. It was in this way that the media became victim of its own sensationalism, and fabricated a story that didn't actually exist. It took until Monday evening—after the hashtag was trending for hours—before any outlet mentioned this hashtag was started by trolls (hats off to Vox's Genevieve Koski for being early with the explainer).
The thing is, trolls have been doing this very same thing for years. In 2013, a group of trolls on 4chan conspired to start #Cut4Bieber, a hashtag that encouraged self-harm in the name of the singer. The media accepted it as a teen movement.
Trolls—not to be confused with cyber bullies, but actual self-identified trolls that hang out in hacker-Anonymous-4chan-Reddit circles—are going to keep trying to trick not just regular internet denizens, but members of the press, they're going to keep using hot button issues to do so. In this subculture, outrage is currency and hate is funny. The only real solution to combatting them is to slow down, and not give in to knee-jerk reactions. If that means changing the way we share and create news, and maybe even how we surf the web, that sacrifice will be worth it.