If you’ve found yourself feeling as though there’s no way to escape domestic politics in this era of heightened partisan bickering, you may have Russia to thank. Recent studies into online behavior tied to Kremlin-linked accounts in recent years have repeatedly shown how Russian operatives engage with Americans regarding far more than presidential candidates.
Although most discussions of Russian influence campaigns revolve around the 2016 presidential election, subsequent investigations have shown that Russia used social media to advance competing narratives among the American people, even going so far as to stage protests and counter-protests at the same locations in an effort to encourage conflict between the groups attending. Russian accounts have actively engaged in both sides of the debate regarding vaccinations, bolstering unfounded claims about the dangers of vaccinating children while simultaneously encouraging those that are pro-vaccination to behave more aggressively to those who question it. Now, a new study has shown how Russia even used the release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” to stoke partisan bickering and promote general discord within the U.S. population.
Americans often tend to discount the effect popular culture has on society, preferring to treat it as though its frivolity makes it inconsequential. The truth is, however, that popular culture has a powerful influence in the ways Americans perceive the world beyond its borders, and even of how they see one another. The “CSI Effect,” for example, is a studied phenomenon in which the depiction of how crimes are solved in the popular TV show “CSI” has actually changed criminal behavior in the United States, making it more difficult to gather real crime scene evidence than ever before. The belief that “The Simpsons” depiction of how unsafe nuclear power plants has scared Americans away from supporting nuclear energy is so pervasive that the Department of Energy even released an article entitled, “7 Things The Simpsons Got Wrong about Nuclear.” Americans may not like to think their time spent in front of the TV translates to actual political ramifications, but science (and the Russians) both clearly say that it does.
In this most recent case, Russian operatives took advantage of the pop-culture buzz surrounding a recent installment of the “Star Wars” franchise, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” A concerted harassment campaign was launched against actress Kelly Marie Tran, who ultimately opted to leave social media as a result. Despite pretty decent critical reviews, a swell of hatred for the movie developed on platforms like Twitter, where users called for the movie to be remade with a new director. The conversation about the film quickly turned poisonous on social media… and a new study published by researcher Morten Bay posits that much of that aggression wasn’t the result of anger about the movie, but rather was by Russian design. The study reads:
A number of fans feel like Star Wars has been politicized by Lucasfilm and Disney, but since 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. 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 effect, Bay posits that like many other Russian influence efforts, the sentiment bolstered by Russian operatives was not one of Russian invention, but was rather a minority voice propagated by trolls and bots until it seemed like a pervasive one. This methodology has been employed by Moscow since well before Russia formed, with similar efforts advanced through print publications regarding conspiracy theories about the CIA assassinating Kennedy and even the U.S. government inventing AIDS to wipe out the African American population. Russia has long relied on America’s inherent distrust of one another to help advance their influence efforts.
The presence of organized influence measures, i.e. bots, sock puppet and troll accounts, is further indications of attempts to manipulate Star Wars fans as part of a political persuasion tactic. This similarity to political influence campaigns on social media—domestic or foreign—is also underscored by the manner in which misinformation appears and (sometimes strategically) gets propagated. The same misinformation mechanisms as seen in the anti-vaccination controversy and the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. are present in the debate over The Last Jedi.
According to Bay’s analysis, 50.9% of all negative tweets about “The Last Jedi” were motivated by Russian efforts or posted by Russian bots, meaning that while half of the criticism regarding the film was based on Star Wars fans actual reactions, the other half was, at best, encouraged by Russian influence.
Overall, it’s unimportant what effect Russian influence had on American perceptions of “The Last Jedi,” because like the 2016 presidential election, the effort wasn’t only focused on picking winners and losers; it was also on encouraging Americans to fight among themselves. It seems likely, if not certain, that similar efforts remain ongoing with any new popular or controversial topic within American popular culture. As long as Americans love to fight with one another, Russia will be happy to encourage it.