Star Wars vs Troll Wars

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Does a movie really suck or is it all just a big Russian conspiracy? Don’t ask me – I haven’t watched any of the new Disney “Star Wars” franchise movies – just not that interested but I’ve watched my friends on social media loving, hating and anything in between regarding every aspect of the new prequels and postquels, from the artistic values to political messages. My conservative friends have been as split on the movies as the general viewing public.

But according to Morten Bay of the University of Southern California in his paper “Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation”, it’s all far simpler – black and white, you might say, just like the Star Wars moral universe. And you can easily see who’s on the Dark Side:

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.

“Star Wars” aside, a “narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society” is arguably pretty true, but to argue that it has been somehow manufactured and is being pushed by alt-right and the Russians is completely one sided and dishonest. For the past two years it has been the Democrats and the left who have been ceaselessly arguing through politics, the media, culture, activism and just about any other medium that the United States under Trump is broken, democracy is in crisis, and the whole country is heading towards some sort of a fascist dystopia. Hasn’t Bay heard of The Resistance, for God’s sake?

This very basic bias tells you all you need to know about the standard of the paper, but by all means read on. Bay spends the first few pages of the paper discussing extensively how “Star Wars”, from the original Lucas trilogy, through the second prequel trilogy, to the Disney films, has always been pretty explicitly left-wing  (I’ve blogged about it too in the past) starting with Lucas’s own identification of the evil Empire with the United States and the Rebel Alliance with Viet Cong. But when right-wingers, whether movie buffs or just ordinary political commentators, criticise this blatant political bent of the series, they are the ones “politicising the pop culture discourse on social media” and doing it “for strategic purposes” (presumably of “propagating a narrative” of division and discord). In culture, as everywhere else, conservatives only have the right to remain silent.

A word of warning: if you read the entire paper, your eyes are likely to be rolling so much there is a danger they can become at least temporarily stuck at the back of the socket. From the guesswork of trying to identify the Russian bots to the sweeping conclusions about the representativeness and the validity of right wing criticism, it’s all very sad and makes me watch “Star Wars” even less.

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The left has relentlessly over the past few decades but particularly in the last few years politicised everything it has touched, i.e. pretty much everything in life (after all, “personal is political” they said in the 1970s), but when the right resents that politicisation, they are the ones who politicise things with their ugly right-wing arguments. Sometimes I just feel like even telling these people to f*** off is too intellectual a riposte.

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