Morten Bay began researching tweets exploring the relationship between fake news and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
As a fan himself, he had seen other fans on Twitter willing to believe disinformation about the movie’s critical reception because it reinforced their beliefs that the film was bad. But as the UCLA alumnus and current fellow at the Center for Digital Future at USC Annenberg analyzed the tweets, he found another phenomenon – trolls and ideologues who used criticism of the movie to reinforce their own political agenda.
Bay’s recently published paper, “Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation,” has been reported on by news outlets like Reuters and The Hollywood Reporter, and was even tweeted out by “The Last Jedi” director, Rian Johnson.
Bay spoke to the Daily Bruin about his research process, the reaction to his work and his takeaway from the results.
Daily Bruin: What was your paper about?
Morten Bay: I’m a “Star Wars” fan myself and I’m part of the whole social media community around “Star Wars,” and around the opening of “The Last Jedi,” I found something that we in information studies have dealt with quite a bit, which is the spread of disinformation and the trust of disinformation. … I collected all the tweets that were directed at the director of the film, Johnson, over a period of seven months from the opening of the film in December 2017 to July 20 … (and narrowed down results) to get down to the accounts that originated some kind of critique aimed at the director.
And that ended up being, after I narrowed it down to one tweet per account, 967 accounts. … I determined by doing a sentiment analysis that 206 of (the 967 accounts) were tweeting negatively, generally, toward Johnson and … 50.9 percent, were doing so for political purposes, and so that’s roughly around 100 (accounts). And out of those 100, there were 16 Russian trolls, but all the rest were either American trolls or bots or people who just decided that they wanted to join the “Star Wars” discussion in order to push a political agenda.
These are people that don’t necessarily tweet about “Star Wars” normally or have interest (in the franchise). … They go into this fan discussion and insert themselves into the discussion in order to push an agenda that’s typically something from the alt-right.
DB: What does that agenda entail?
MB: One of my favorite examples is one guy, who is just a completely regular dude living in the South somewhere. We know he’s not some kind of troll because he puts up photos of himself from his daily life. … He’s not that interested in “Star Wars,” clearly, when you look through his Twitter account. … But he still entered the discussion with Johnson and started the tweet by saying something about the film like, “Yeah, Lucasfilm must have been asleep when you handed in the script for this thing,” and then the two last lines of the tweet are something like, “Yeah, based on all the nonsense of this film, I should have known that you’re a gun grabber.” It came as Johnson was tweeting something completely unrelated to “Star Wars” about gun control. … And that’s the kind of politicization that goes on.
You will see that with sort of vehement antifeminists who are yelling “(social justice warrior)” all over the place. You will see that with people who are Trump supporters who want to push the narrative that everything that anybody on the left says is a complete lie and fake news. … The same things that you see in the political debate on the right being pushed on right-wing social media accounts will all of the sudden show up in “Star Wars” discussion.
DB: Why “Star Wars?”
MB: It’s actually my sense that it’s not just “Star Wars” and it’s not just “The Last Jedi.” My sense is that this is starting to happen across the board in terms of all kinds of discussions. … “The Last Jedi” did follow in the tradition of other “Star Wars” movies of having a political position that’s center-left, and I think a lot of people that haven’t necessarily been paying a lot of attention to that might have gone in to see the film and not expected to get a political message, although “Star Wars” has always been political.
DB: How did you find out about Johnson’s tweet about your paper?
MB: We’ve actually engaged before that way. He tweeted something about how his experience has been with all these haters that have been very vocal on his timeline and I replied to that tweet and said, “Just so you know, I’m looking into this and these are my preliminary results.” … He was like, “I appreciate it, let me know when you’re done.” … So people were looking forward to this study and so (Johnson) literally tweeted it out within 20 minutes of me posting it.
DB: What would you say to people who dismiss this simply as an entertainment issue?
MB: What I think would be interesting is if we can promote a culture on social media where we can call people out who are hiding behind their avatars. If you’re not willing to put your name or your face to all this vitriol you’re spewing, if you’re not willing to actually be recognized on the street for what you have said, you shouldn’t be saying it. And that’s not something we can regulate, that’s up to us. That’s up to the users. … I think we kind of need to get that sort of respect and courtesy back into social media so it can be a better place to be.