Tuesday, 9 October 2018
The Last Jedi: Russian Bots & Echo Chambers
Yep, we're back here again. Despite my efforts to remove myself from Star Wars, I find it best to keep a close eye on the overall nature of the discussions around it. The reason behind it is simply because it has become almost a singular example of everything wrong with the internet, fandoms, and attempts by articles to control overall narratives for the benefit of others. So, it's an absolute steaming pile of bovine dung that most people with any sense have tried to step back from. The last several times we discussed this focused on the problems with fandom responses, interactions and harassment from multiple angles.
Despite what each side claims, no one here is the "good guy". You can try to argue that one side has more racists motivating or seemingly siding with it, but the second you think that is fine, you spot a bunch of people using accusations of racism to blackname and attack others for simply disagreeing with them. No matter how misaimed or inaccurate that might be, the zeal behind it and the depiction of one side as sub-humans means no one will even question it before jumping on said people. Quite frankly, things will likely just keep getting worse as the years wear on unless someone eases off on this subject.
Enter Morten Bay, journalist and writer.
Bay decided to publish an article under the name Weaponizing the Haters, which delved into the subject of the dispute surrounding The Last Jedi. It's a rather long read on the whole, citing everything from Lucas' inspiration from the American Civil War, the Vietnam war and others, while also bringing up the recent reactions to the aforementioned Star Wars film. In truth, it's a rather frustrating read for many reasons, as it performs the usual sins of those who feel The Last Jedi is flawless and seeks to demonise those who dislike how it was handled. We have the usual mix of dehumanising terms such as "fantagonists" to sum up those who were vocally opposing the films, cherry picking facts by trying to gloss over the poor performance of Solo being the result of any negative response to the previous film, and frequent efforts to lump them in with the Trump supporting alt-right population of the world. In fact, if you wish to sum it up in one part, you need only look at this part of the closing statement to sum up the article's entire message:
"Approximately one in three negative fans express misogynist, anti-progressive, anti-social justice or conservative views. When some detractors of The Last Jedi correctly claim that it is an injustice to place these labels on all negative fans, these detractors also have to contend with the fact that the labels actually fit a large portion of their faction."
It's the usual unfortunate effort we have come to expect from those who support The Last Jedi on the whole, focusing on the elements which support a singular viewpoint. It's less an examination than it is a reaffirmation, unwilling to consider anything besides "I am right and here is why". It's something which is a noted problem in any part of the debate surrounding this film, and that has only been further proven by how many articles responded to one part of it: The comparison with Russian bots.
You might have seen the accusation a few times already, but if not here are a few of the following examples:
"Star Wars: New Study Suggests "Significant" Amount of 'The Last Jedi' Trolls Are Politicized Bots" - Comicbook.com
"Half of 'Last Jedi' haters were bots, trolls, activists, study says" - Reuters.com
"Russian trolls likely behind negative tweets about 'Last Jedi': study" - CTV News
“Star Wars: Russian bots and trolls behind Last Jedi abuse, study finds” - Sky News
There are plenty of others, but I would hope those four would make it clear how eagerly many news outlets jumped on this point. There was a mad scramble to do just this, announcing to the world that the majority of those who dislike The Last Jedi, those who dare to criticise or oppose it, are mere sockpuppets working for Putin's regime. This, in turn,was quickly repeated by fans en-mass, as those with pro-The Last Jedi views jumped at the opportunity to slander any and all who disliked what they loved, with examples such as these:
There's just one problem here, however: This isn't true. In fact, the study itself doesn't even outright call most of these people Russian bots so much as compare actions with how Russian troll farms have influenced online discourse. Even then, accepting that fact, the study itself stands on some extremely shaky ground, thanks both to how it was conducted and the person behind it.
The study itself was not some massed sweeping examination across the fandom, but instead limited itself to Twitter. In fact, it was limited to a single Twitter account: That of director Rian Johnson. Bay opted to examine who was commenting to Johnson himself and the source of each Tweet. He examined its nature, content and who it originated from, going from one to the next. The end result proved that only a relatively minor fraction of these might possibly be Russian bots. That grand total? Sixteen out of nearly a thousand different accounts. You can find a good break-down of this here, but it goes to show that most writers were quite happy to jump on this and spread an easy lie if it supported their own side.
While a few articles have corrected their own mistakes - notably The Verge - many others still display this lie, without editing or correcting the information in question. Why? It's simple. At the end of the day, those who were most vocal in supporting The Last Jedi used the research as not something to be commented upon, but an excuse to attack others. These are often the same accounts which have been repeating from day one a single lie after another to try and downplay any frustration against Disney's productions, or write off such concerns as being from the scum of humanity. If you recall, the last time this was brought up on here was when someone decided to black-name and attack a charity when given an excuse.
Even those which have tried to correct this are still attempting to repeat this same mantra. Each is using the simple excuse as an opportunity to verbally shout down or sneer at those who have opposing feelings to them. You need look no further than the Dork Side of the Force for this, with an article titled "Political agendas, Russian bots and fantagonists: Why The Last Jedi backlash doesn’t matter". While I am not going to link them, as I do not wish to directly give their website undeserved traffic over such weasel words and implied insults, here's a good quote from what you can expect:
"Now it seems a new academic paper may have brought the online debate of Rian Johnson’s film to a whole level we never thought we’d see. Morten Bay, who has now bravely (naïvely?) inserted himself into the fracas, suggests slightly more than 50 percent of The Last Jedi’s backlash may likely have come from bots, troll accounts and politically motivated activists including those of the Russian persuasion.
But, Bay’s paper isn’t about proving whether The Last Jedi was actually liked, it’s a study in the breakdown of discourse. The audacity of opinion is something that’s been on display in front of our blue screens, attacking ones that differs from our own. Long gone are the days of debating Ewoks or what the hell George Lucas’ mindset was during the special editions. Replaced with recalcitrant vitriol by every beating pulse with a wire plugged into his cerebellum and fingers to record every preconceived judgment that passes through his mind that nanosecond."
While it tries to be moderate in its tone, the author is clearly leaning far more toward enjoying the film than not, and is willing to repeatedly imply those who dislike it are wrong. Even the closing statement, which tries to encourage peace between the fractured groups, still carries this note, and it even skims over the fact Bay's findings are questionable in a brief paragraph before continuing to try and preach its message.
Yet the most problematic point is that Bay himself seemed to have few issues encouraging this echo chamber, because he seems to have already joined one. I already mentioned the "I'm right, you're wrong, here's why only my statement matters!" standing and direction of the article, and that's only further reinforced by his activity online. If you go through his Twitter feed, you will find tweet after tweet with the following content in them:
Despite claiming that he was careful to frame his work in the right way, the entire thing reads like an effort to support the side he likes while opposing the one who disagrees with him. That lack of an impartial view or effort to delve into further problems behind the discourse, such as the encouragement to spam positive reviews or create sock-puppet accounts purely to offset negative Rotten Tomatoes reviews. Oh, and if you think that's a lie, here's a recent one:
The thing to take away from this latest development is simply a repeat of what has been said before: There's no good way out of this. Things will just keep getting worse as both sides keep hammering into one another, unwilling to talk, unwilling to cede any ground on any point, and using any opportunity to insult and attack one another. No matter how good a person's intention might be, no matter how open they are in one way or another, efforts to discuss this will only end badly. The pro-Disney era fans will just keep using it as an opportunity to piss on those who disagree with them, while those who dislike it will just keep getting pissed off as a result. Producing something like this was never going to resolve anything. All it has done is add more fuel to the fire.