Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article titled “Who hates Star Wars for its newfound diversity? Here are the numbers.” It comes to the perhaps unsurprising conclusion that, as ferocious as it has become lately, the toxic subculture that has developed in Star Wars fandom is a vocal minority. But its sampling is still too narrow.
Written by the University of Rochester’s Beth Lacina, an associate professor of political science, the study as presented in the Washington Post’s analysis piece examines a very tight selection of Star Wars associated tweets in the wake of hostile reactions to the latest film in the main saga, The Last Jedi, as well as the controversy surrounding hateful attacks that drove actress Kelly Marie Tran, who played new hero Rose Tico in the film, off social media. Based on random selections of tweets relating to Star Wars, The Last Jedi, Kelly Marie Tran, and Rose Tico up to the point Tran quit social media in June of this year, the analysis finds that about six per cent of the gathered tweets contained offensive language and a much smaller subsection of those—around one in 100—contained hate speech.
Those metrics sharply increased when examining just the data that related to Kelly Marie Tran and Rose Tico specifically. Offensive language went from six to 12 per cent, and hate speech rose from 1.1 per cent of the sampled tweets to 1.8 per cent—and it rises even further when specifically examining negative tweets about Rose and Tran, indicating that discussion becomes significantly more toxic when discussing Star Wars’ first non-white female lead negatively than it does with any other criticism of the franchise.
Lacina’s research also found similar spikes of abusive language when looking at the way people discuss Star Wars with female fans, but it’s here where the cracks of the limited scope of the data begin to show. While the results show that female fans are more likely to receive hateful language from fans—one in 280 tweets containing hate speech in comparison to one in 450 tweets for men—the sampling came from a very specific subset of online Star Wars fandom: Star Wars podcast Twitter accounts. Sixty-three accounts in total, with 37 operated by men and 26 by women, formed the basis for this section of research, and while Lacina argues that Star Wars podcasters are indebted to Lucasfilm (even when not officially affiliated) as the existence of more Star Wars to talk about is vital to them, it’s a sample size that underestimates the scope of how female Star Wars fans interact and express their fandom.
Restricting discussion to specifically Kelly Marie Tran and Rose Tico also sidesteps other female figures, fictional or otherwise, who have become targets for abuse in the months since The Last Jedi. Daisy Ridley’s character Rey (and in her case, this is a holdover from abuse that began with The Force Awakens) and Admiral Holdo (played by Laura Dern) have become frequent points of ire from abusive fandom, questioning everything from their capability as women in positions of power in The Last Jedi’s narrative to the fact that Holdo has purple hair and wears a glamorous dress while in command.
Outside of the film, there’s also been the vilification of producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who has become a focal point of criticism among some fans as the public “face” of Star Wars at large (look to some of the recent reactions to the official news that Kennedy, one of Hollywood’s most successful producers, is receiving an honorary Oscar from the Academy). Most recently, The Star Wars Show and Rebels Recon host Andi Gutierrez faced a manufactured backlash after an image of her drinking out of a mug labelled “fanboy tears” was taken out of context to rile up a conflict between a Lucasfilm employee and Star Wars fandom. Lacina’s report is a start, but it barely scratches the surface of a firestorm that started brewing long before The Last Jedi hit theatres.
The full report itself—which is well worth a read—at least acknowledges this limitation, even if the accompanying Washington Post article doesn’t. It explains not just the limitation of scope, but that a randomised sampling of data lacks certain nuances, such as differentiating between a casual use of coarse language and the same language being used to make a discussion more hostile. Most intriguingly, using Gutierrez’s recent harassment as an example, it also highlights an ongoing trend in social media discourse at large: the rise of quick, targeted, and organised campaigns of abuse, an issue that doesn’t just apply to Star Wars and other genre franchises but everything from politics to the rise of Gamergate copycat campaigns like Comicsgate.
As Lacina notes, a random sample of tweets may miss windows where abusive and hateful speech spikes, as it did when Gutierrez’s selfie was posted by the Twitter account of formerly-Lucasfilm-affiliated fan podcast Rebel Force Radio, sparking a wave of targeted harassment:
The graph highlights one difficulty with capturing harassment on Twitter. Harassment frequently occurs in short episodes. Gutierrez’s account received no offensive tweets in the days before July 9, then twenty or more for the next three days. Activity in her account returned to normal on July 13. Since harassment is not spread evenly through time but bunched up at a few points, it is easy to miss an entire episode when drawing a random sample of tweets.
A second difficulty is deleted tweets. Gutierrez received a lot of now-deleted tweets at the same time the offensive tweets sent to her account surged. 4.5% of tweets to her account sent between July 9 to July 12 are now deleted. Offensive speech, hate speech, and threats could be missed entirely because Twitter does not make this kind of data available for research.
Although highlighting episodes of harassment and abuse in fandom circles like this have become more and more common lately, it should come as no surprise that the prevalence of hate and abuse in a fan community as vast and diverse as Star Wars’ is coming from a vocal minority. But not only does that minority still exist—and should be fought against even if it is in small numbers—analysis like Lacina’s shows that there is still a long way to go in getting an accurate reading of just how deeply rooted toxic elements in fan communities have become and the affects they have on individuals. It’s a step in the right direction, but simply a step nonetheless.