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How 2 racist trolls got a ridiculous Star Wars boycott trending on Twitter

On Monday afternoon, the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII shot to the top of Twitter's trending topics. Since we're in the midst of a huge promotional push for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, it's not surprising that J.J. Abrams's upcoming film is one of the most talked-about things on social media right now, but the context of #BoycottStarWarsVII is much uglier than, say, trying to avoid the most concentrated, mercenary marketing push imaginable.

It's racism, plain and simple.

Specifically, the #BoycottStarWarsVII "movement" (and I'm skeptical of calling it that, for reasons I'll get into shortly) takes umbrage with the fact that The Force Awakens' cast features not one, but multiple people of color, a situation a small but vocal minority sees as evidence of a "white genocide" in the Star Wars universe, perpetuated by Abrams, a white-hating Hollywood Jew. Yes, it's ridiculous and disgusting on many, many levels.

Here's the thing, though: Click over to the #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag, and you'll see roughly 95 percent of those using it are talking about how ridiculous and disgusting the hashtag is, or retweet-shaming actual racist tweets. As of this writing, I had to scroll through 20-plus anti-#BoycottStarWarsVII tweets to find one that was actually in support of the movement.

That's not to say there aren't people out there using Twitter to spread a message of hate. But the fact that they're such a small fringe compared with the number decrying their message speaks to the unique way Twitter trends can amplify a niche message and create controversy out of whole cloth.

#BoycottStarWarsVII began with a handful of people tweeting repeatedly

Scroll to the very bottom of #BoycottStarWarsVII, before the onslaught of "What the hell is this #BoycottStarWarsVII thing all about" tweets began, and it becomes apparent where this all started: with a handful — as in, fewer than a dozen — of people creating their own echo chamber of racial discontent. (I've compiled several of the most horrifying in this Storify if you're curious. Be warned: It's ugly.)

The seeds of discontent were sown Sunday night by user @DarklyEnlighten ("Lord Humungus"), and quickly found flower in the timeline of user @genophilia ("End Cultural Marxism"). These two users are responsible for the vast majority of early #BoycottStarWarsVII tweets. Both explicitly express the desire to get the hashtag trending. Overnight, a few others took up the cause (@officialCritDis, "Critical Spooking," being another major amplifier).

That handful of tweeters was just enough that by morning, #BoycotStarWarsVII had begun trending. @genophilia was pleased.

Once a hashtag lands on Twitter's trends page, it's open to interpretation and mutation

Once #BoycottStarWarsVII hit Twitter's trending topics, it was hugely amplified, with new tweets pouring in by the hundreds every few minutes. And while some of the tweets responding to the hashtag support its original intent, the vast majority of respondents were expressing disbelief at its existence. Once the feminist website the Mary Sue picked up the story, anger and mockery followed.

To be clear, mockery and anger are understandable and reasonable responses in this situation. Ideas like the ones that gave rise to #BoycottStarWarsVII deserve considerable pushback.

But the great irony of social media is that pushing against this type of thing only gives it greater amplification and alerts more people to its existence. For every 100 people who see #BoycottStarWarsVII as a garbage fire, there might be one who somehow finds value in it and spreads the message further.

Everyone spreading the hashtag — pro or anti — is giving those who started it exactly what they want

Amplification by those who disagreed with the hashtag's aims was exactly what users like @DarklyEnlighten and @genophilia were banking on when they started flooding their timelines last night. Being as shocking and provocative as possible prompts responses, and that sort of engagement piques Twitter's algorithm's interest, giving rise to a "trending topic," regardless of the topic at hand.

People like @DarklyEnlighten and @genophilia take great glee in angering "social justice warriors," using the anger they provoke to advance their own causes/victim complexes — and, most of all, to amuse themselves. @DarklyEnlighten, @genophilia, and their ilk weren't really aiming to start a movement with this hashtag. They were trolling, plain and simple, and it worked.

And, yes, I realize that by shining a light on this nonsense, I'm contributing to the very amplification I'm talking about here. But #BoycottStarWarsVII has already reached the visibility tipping point, and has thus become something more valuable than it ever was as a quote-unquote movement: It's a cautionary tale of what internet trolls are capable of when we don't recognize them for what they are.

The saying "don't feed the trolls" was coined roughly five minutes after the internet was invented, but there's a reason it continues to come up, time and again. Twitter trends are just another source of sustenance for trolls and hate groups. All #BoycottStarWarsVII has truly accomplished is giving them a nice, hearty meal. Rather than heaping more scorn on their plates, consider reporting them to Twitter, blocking them, or forgetting they ever existed.

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