Russian trolls stoked ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ fan outrage, study finds

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Do not underestimate the power of the dark side.

A new academic study found that Russian online trolls and bots likely stoked fan dissent after the release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” last year. While the movie, from Walt Disney Co.’s DIS, -0.60%   Lucasfilm, grossed more than $620 million domestically and more than $1.3 billion worldwide, it was the subject of a loud online backlash from angry self-professed fans and many on the so-called “alt-right,” some of whom objected to its anti-fascist message and female heroes.

But much of the movie’s criticism was “deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments,” wrote Morten Bay, a researcher at the University of Southern California. “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.”

In studying tweets sent to “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson over a period of seven months, Bay found that more than half of the negative tweets were “likely politically motivated or not even human.”

“A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls,” he wrote in his study, titled “Weaponizing The Haters: ‘The Last Jedi’ and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation.”

Overall, he found just 21.9% of “The Last Jedi” tweets he analyzed were negative in the first place.

Twitter TWTR, -0.53%   was one of the main social-media battlegrounds for Russian misinformation during the 2016 presidential election, and there is no indication Russian-backed tweets have stopped trying to sow dissent in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The study “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,” Bay wrote.

In a series of tweets, Johnson, who said he was subject to “a virulent strain of online harassment,” said “what the top-line [of the study] describes is consistent with my experience online.”

Last December, an alt-right group claimed credit for lowering the fan score for “The Last Jedi” on the movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The same group claimed it also attempted to sabotage the Rotten Tomatoes score for “Black Panther,” another Disney film, earlier this year. That campaign also didn’t end up hurting the movie at the box office, where it grossed more than $700 million domestically and $1.3 billion worldwide.

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