Major franchise films like Marvel, DC Comics, and Star Wars are known for getting strong reactions from fans no matter how they felt about it, but there was a level of vitriol attached to the backlash against The Last Jedi, the kind you might see on the political field. As it turns out, that’s probably not a coincidence.
A new study from Morten Bay looked at the online backlash to The Last Jedi and found that “more than half” of the people who shared their distaste for the film directly with Last Jedidirector and screenwriter Rian Johnson on Twitter were bots, trolls, sock puppets, or political activists using tactics similar to those seen in the 2016 election. Of that group, some of the accounts sharing racist, sexist, and right-wing messages may have been Russian trolls. Those accounts were used to not only fuel and spread the backlash toward the film, but to give the impression that a larger portion of fans disliked the film than they actually did. Out of those who disliked the film and expressed it on social media, men vastly outnumbered women.
While some fans have legitimate issues with the film, the backlash against The Last Jedi has largely been shaped by how toxic it’s been—something that’s not a new phenomenon for people who’ve already experienced online harassment. Johnson’s gotten many of those comments himself, but some of them have also been directed toward the film’s stars, including Kelly Marie Tran, who was driven off Instagram earlier this year after receiving a barrage of racist and sexist comments online.
Bay acknowledged the limited scope of his study and the data on Twitter, but he’s seen enough data to conclude that the online backlash against The Last Jedi is not representative to how fans as a whole feel about the film. But even complaints about how political The Last Jedi was have been overexaggerated; he found that the film is about as political as older films and its politics aren’t a result of Disney’s ownership of Lucasfilm. What’s changed between then and now is that “the polarization of the Trump era has politicized the fans.”
He added that more researchers need to look at how pop culture is weaponized in political debate.
“Yet, even considering the limitations of the data set, there are enough indications that pop culture debates on social media are being politicized, sometimes for strategic purposes that have nothing to do with the subject under debate,” Bay wrote. “As the debate on misinformation, political communication and regulation of social media continues, researchers studying these matters may find it beneficial to turn their attention to pop culture and how political messaging is propagated in its fandoms.”
Johnson, for his part, noted that what he’s seen of the study so far gels with what he’s experienced online.
A bit of Morten’s research came out awhile ago and made some headlines – here’s his full paper. Looking forward to reading it, but what the top-line describes is consistent with my experience online. https://t.co/MTRgmPxGgZ
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) October 1, 2018
And just to be totally clear: this is not about fans liking or not liking the movie – I’ve had tons of great talks with great fans online and off who liked and disliked stuff, that’s what fandom is all about. This is specifically about a virulent strain of online harassment.
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) October 2, 2018
You can read the full study here.