If you’ve been on the Internet this week, you’ve probably seen some variation on the following headline: “ ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ was targeted by Russian trolls, study says.” If you wanted to be more inflammatory, you might have misleadingly headlined it thusly: “A study says about half of ‘The Last Jedi’ haters online were actually Russian trolls.” Either way, the point was simple: The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming — for your Star Wars movies.
Surprisingly, all of this sensationalism was, in fact, nonsense. As my colleague Alex Griswold noted, the study found a minuscule number of tweets that might have been authored by Russians, their bearlike natures determined by factors such as handles with numbers in them and the time of day tweets were sent. But don’t take Griswold’s word for it: The author of the study himself, perhaps taken by surprise, himself played down the results.
“I really tried to be very careful in how I framed this. There’s no evidence Russians did anything unusual or meaningful,” Morten Bay, now a researcher affiliated with Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern Californiaa, told The Post’s Steven Zeitchik.
More interesting than the study itself is the way people desperate to explain why “The Last Jedi” underperformed box-office expectations by as much as $200 million seized on and magnified the findings. “The Last Jedi” has become a flashpoint in the culture war, so there has to be a reason it initially dropped out of the bestselling Blu-ray charts after just 13 weeks, as opposed to “The Force Awakens,” which took 26 weeks to initially drop out of the top 20.* There’s no way that lingering disappointment over “The Last Jedi” could have contributed to “Solo’s” disastrous box office. Surely there’s a reason, aside from mediocrity, that “Last Jedi” toy sales were in the tank, “unexpectedly” underperforming the year before.
Nope: It’s the Russians.
The Russians, of course, are the villains of the moment. The Russians, naturally, are to blame for Donald Trump winning the presidency. It certainly couldn’t have been the fact that the opposition party nominated the second-least-popular candidate of all time to go up against him, the least-popular candidate of all time. It certainly couldn’t have been the bad campaign strategy or the lack of a real message or anything like that. Much more important were the efforts of a bunch of anonymous people tweeting away in some Siberian warehouse for eight hours at a whack.
I understand the appeal of the Russian Theory — I even think that there’s a kernel of merit to it, at least with regard to the hacking and leaking of John Podesta’s emails and the role that this played in shaping media narratives — given the horrendous state of our public discourse. But as Zeynep Tufekci noted in the New York Times, Russian meddling via social media is a symptom of what ails us, not the cause. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the ways in which Twitter can distract us with triviality and Facebook can confuse us with viral lies and decide it’s worth spending a few bucks there to destabilize the world’s greatest nation. But I feel pretty confident in my belief that the number of votes changed by tweets from people with no avi, eight numbers in their handle and roughly 12 followers was, approximately, zero.
More troubling than the Russian Theory itself is the spread of the Russian Theory to explain away something as trivial as criticism of cultural objects. It couldn’t be that “The Last Jedi” alienated some longtime fans because director Rian Johnson wanted to “subvert expectations.” It couldn’t be that some audience members did not care for the sub-prequel CGI casino planet horse escape or the fact that the central conflict revolved around a low-speed chase in outer space or that it managed to do the one thing a Star Wars movie can never, ever do: bore audiences.
Nope: It’s the Russians.
The enlistment of Star Wars into our never-ending culture war is bad enough. But the need to create a scapegoat — to suggest that all criticism is leveled in bad faith or manipulated by malicious forces; to elevate every disagreement into an international incident; to bend to social media’s insistence that every little fight is the most important thing, ever, at least for the next five minutes, and those opposed to us are wicked — is deeply disturbing. Because it suggests that we are rapidly becoming unwilling to even listen to anyone who disagrees with us about something as trivial as a movie.
*A note on methodology: I’m using “weeks in the top 20” as a measure of audience enthusiasm instead of total units sold because of the rapidly evolving home video marketplace. I’m also only using consecutive weeks in the top 20 after initial release because “The Force Awakens” reentered the top 20 after a few weeks out of it, thanks to a Christmas season bump. All told, “The Force Awakens” has appeared in the top 20 Blu-ray charts 41 times. “The Last Jedi” has a total of 14 appearances, a number that a.) will likely increase once Christmas season starts, and b.) was likely depressed somewhat by the film’s early appearance on Netflix (though it took “Rogue One,” which had a similar Netflix release, 16 weeks to initially drop out of the top 20).