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Did Star Wars: The Last Jedi destroy the franchise and permanently rupture the fandom as its critics (melodramatically) have accused it of doing? According to a new academic paper by researcher Morten Bay, the answer is clearly no.
The paper, titled “Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the Strategic Politicization of Pop Culture Through Social Media Manipulation,” examines the online response to 2017’s Last Jedi, a movie that has come to be considered controversial amongst the larger fanbase of the franchise.
Bay suggests that reputation may not be earned, and instead “finds evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments,” as he writes in the paper’s abstract. He continues, “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 paper analyzes in depth the negative online reaction, which is split into three different camps: those with a political agenda, trolls and what Bay calls “real fantagonists,” which he defines as genuine Star Wars fans disappointed in the movie. His findings are fascinating; “Overall, 50.9% of those tweeting negatively [about the movie] was likely politically motivated or not even human,” he writes, noting that only 21.9% of tweets analyzed about the movie had been negative in the first place.
“A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls,” Bay writes of the negative tweets.
Moreover, he suggests, complaints about Lucasfilm’s reported politicization of the franchise by many of the disaffected fans say more about the fans than it does Disney or Lucasfilm’s treatment of it. “[S]ince the political and ethical positions presented in the new films are consistent with older films, it is more likely that the polarization of the Trump era has politicized the fans,” Bay argues. “The divisive political discourse of the study period and the months leading up to it, has likely primed these fans with a particular type of political messaging that is in direct conflict with the values presented in The Last Jedi.”
In response to a tweet announcing the release of the paper, Last Jedi director Rian Johnson shared the tweet, adding, “Looking forward to reading it, but what the top-line describes is consistent with my experience online.”