Bots and Russian trolls with political agendas are hijacking pop culture debates on social media on an industrial scale, new research claims.

Over half of the negative comments about the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, were from these politically motivated trolls or were posted by bots, a US research paper has found.

Research fellow Morten Bay, from the University of Southern California (USC), examined tweets about the film, the eighth in the Star Wars franchise, and concluded that more than 50% were generated by what he described as “bots, trolls/sockpuppets or political activists using the debate to propagate political messages supporting extreme rightwing causes and the discrimination of gender, race or sexuality. A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls”.

The Last Jedi attracted torrents of online abuse, which especially targeted Vietnamese-American actor Kelly Marie Tran, who closed her social media accounts as a result.

What the research revealed, however, is that genuine negative comments about the film on Twitter were in a minority, and that the hostile campaign over the film was concocted to convey wider political messaging, or simply to provoke a reaction, the Guardian reported.

In Weaponizing the haters: The Last Jedi and the strategic politicization of pop culture through social media manipulation, Bay reported “evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments.”

Over 960 Twitter accounts containing tweets aimed at the movie’s director, Rian Johnson, were analysed. Bay discovered that less than a quarter (21.9%) said anything negative about the film. And, after removing those posted by bots, trolls and those Bay said had “clear political agendas”, the figure fell to 10.5%.

He estimated that, of the group containing negative comments, some 50.9% were “likely politically motivated or not even human. He broke this down as: bots (5%), trolls or sockpuppets (16% – of which 50% seemed to be Russian trolls); those with clear political agendas (30%).

Star Wars fandom is not the only cultural sphere to have been the victim of manufactured hostility. The paper also noted that in February this year, NBC News published a data set of more than 200,000 tweets collected from accounts Twitter had deleted after deciding they were Russian troll accounts, and part of an influence operation spreading political messages by using engagement in pop culture.

Bay said: “There are enough indications that pop culture debates on social media are being politicised, sometimes for strategic purposes that have nothing to do with the subject under debate.”

Sourced from The Guardian, University of Southern California; additional content by WARC staff