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Russian trolls used Star Wars to sow discord online. The fact that it worked is telling.

Grappling with the rise of “fandamentalism,” where too many of us turn pop culture into a religion.

Many of us look to pop culture for our senses of right and wrong, sometimes with a near-religious zealotry.
Javier Zarracina/Vox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The major takeaway that many people gleaned from a recent paper by Morten Bay, a research fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Center for the Digital Future, was that the seemingly massive backlash against The Last Jedi, the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, was driven by Russian trolls and bots.

Trolls and bots were, indeed, part of Bay’s research. But his study further concludes that much of the backlash was driven by political opportunism from the American alt-right, particularly members of that movement who were deeply involved in 2014’s anti-feminist and proto-alt-right Gamergate movement in the video game community.

Meanwhile, it found that while many believe the dominant response to The Last Jedi was overwhelmingly negative, the preponderance of bots and trolls on social media only made it seem that way. In reality, most viewers of the film seem to have liked it. (Vox’s sister site, Polygon, has more.)

But what Bay’s study really got me thinking about was how strange it was that Russian agents would focus on Star Wars, of all things, in what seems to be a campaign to spread dissension throughout America, dating back to before the 2016 election. Whether or not a Star Wars movie is good or bad has little bearing on the overall twists and turns of global geopolitics, and yet here was evidence that somebody in Russia sure disagreed.

Maybe the Russian bots that Bay identified are all extra-governmental, built by trolls with spare time on their hands and a grudge against Lucasfilm. Or maybe Bay’s findings are yet another example of how thoroughly Russian intelligence has zeroed in on the idea that white nationalism is central to driving a wedge into American society.

If the latter is true, then what’s most unnerving about Russia’s intelligence strategy and its connection to Star Wars isn’t what that strategy says about Russia, but what it says about us.

The Gamergate era and the rise of “fandamentalism”

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I don’t know if you heard, but there was a bit of a backlash against The Last Jedi.

Whomever you believe is behind movements like Gamergate and the pushback against The Last Jedi, what they reveal about America in the 2010s feels a little hard to swallow at first: At this point in history, a lot of us — and especially a lot of young, white men — are centering their identities and their senses of right and wrong on pop culture artifacts, sometimes with a near-religious zealotry. Call it “fandamentalism.”

The most obvious examples are linked to the aforementioned movements, like how much of the early anger driving Gamergate stemmed from a number of essays that besmirched the “gamer identity” as one that was largely young, white, male, and obsessed with overly sexualized digital creations. But fandamentalism is also endemic in the anger that so many of these young men feel at the very idea of giant, well-established franchises evolving to be more inclusive of women and people of color. Indeed, the initial backlash to The Last Jedi’s predecessor, The Force Awakens, was driven by only a handful of people but based entirely on the film’s male lead being black.

However, it’s not as though there aren’t ample examples within more progressive communities as well. There is undoubtedly an increased desire among consumers to see massive movie franchises and other pop culture behemoths reflect the diversity of the world, not only because representation matters (and it does) but also because it creates a kind of virtue by proxy: I like this thing that makes the right progressive moves, and therefore, I am a good person.

All the while, massive entertainment companies turn representation and inclusion into excuses to make more money. That they’ve increasingly bet on diversity being the best way to rake in lots of cash is heartening for progressives in the sense that the entertainment companies believe that progressive causes are the “winners” of these crude economics. But there’s an empty cynicism to their choices all the same; a company like Disney sees diversity as a worthy goal second and a potential money machine first.

In and of itself, the idea of looking for meaning and a reflection of one’s own life in pop culture is perfectly fine. I would even argue that it’s the first step toward digging deeper into a work of art, because it leads us down a path of critical thought and invigorating discussion with friends — and maybe even a little bit of self-examination.

But here’s where things have flipped on their ear in the 2010s: Many fans of a work aren’t just looking for meaning in the work itself, but for the work to impart meaning upon them. Too often, they ask pop culture to fill the role that religion, philosophy, or psychology once did.

But pop culture is never going to be an easy fit for that particular task, because much of it is too dedicated to the pursuit of distraction — a worthy goal, but not one that’s going to give many people a better understanding of themselves, or a higher purpose.

And while I think there’s a lot of value in considering pop culture on a level deeper than, “I liked it!” (which is literally part of my job), the danger of fandamentalism comes from the ways in which it turns some pop culture properties into a belief system, into something so central to one’s identity that it becomes inextricable from the self. Once that happens, if somebody criticizes, say, “gamer culture,” it ends up feeling less like pop culture criticism and more like bigotry or bullying to the people who consider themselves part of gamer culture. It’s fandom as religion.

That’s what makes our online debates about pop culture susceptible to outside interference — and it’s why Gamergate has always explained the rise of Donald Trump and the divisiveness of the 2016 election better than almost anything else.

The way Russia targets American voters is deeply cynical about what drives us — but also, evidently, accurate

President Trump Holds MAGA Rally In Las Vegas
Some people really, really love the president.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

What’s been eerily notable about the last several years in American political discourse is how thoroughly everything about being a Republican or Democrat now flows through the model of fandom. Many people have equated politics fandom with sports fandom — you have a political “team” you root for, and you get upset when the other guys win — but I think pop culture is almost more useful as a lens.

Pop culture, after all, is largely built around stories, and stories have always been a way that we organize our various moral principles and ideas about the universe. The same is true of politics, in which a party’s platform is meant to stand in for a whole virtue system. No matter which party you support, it’s unlikely you support all of its policies, or even know that much about all of them. You probably have a handful of issues that you consider most important, then pick the party that most closely aligns with your beliefs on them.

Stories are also the likely reason for why pop culture has taken on a sort of religious significance to so many: Religion, too, is a series of stories meant to provide moral guidance and the like. But the underlying goal of religion is to take a stab at pondering or even providing answers to some of the deepest questions about the universe, and the best pop culture — the best art, period — is rarely so didactic. It finds more fascination with the process of questioning than it does any of the answers it might arrive at. Art and religion swim in the same pool, to be sure, but they practice different strokes.

Where all of these movements dovetail is in the eternal human yearning for easy answers, of the sort that suggest that a fundamentalist fervor for “the right” belief system will unlock the correct path. And many of the most ridiculous Gamergate memes, which celebrate the strength and resilience of gamers, don’t strike me as that far off from the sorts of fundamentalist Christian slogans I grew up with, reinforcing the idea of a chosen identity (centered on an interest or a passion or a religion) being oppressed by the larger culture, even if that chosen identity is part of a larger moment that dominates the culture. They’re all a seemingly self-evident hack toward righteousness.

This is where the genius of Gamergaters or Russian operatives or alt-right trolls comes in. They’ve transformed our natural desire for those easy answers, our natural desire to feel like we are right and everybody else is not, into a way to build a new belief system around everything from a political party to a Star Wars movie.

This approach seems to have found quite a bit more success on the right, which is more prone to authoritarian or fundamentalist movements. But it’s not as if the left is completely immune, not when the slightly more diverse casting of a major franchise movie is treated as an act of tremendous moral weight on the part of the corporations who make that decision.

I’m not suggesting that we need to completely change how we think and talk about pop culture. Arguing about pop culture is fun, and there are important discussions to have about how it reflects our own world back at us. But pop culture can’t replace a moral code or a belief system. There has to be a way to disentangle our feelings about the things we love from our self-worth. Religious wars might provide meaning in the short term, but in the long view of history, they almost never turn out well for anyone involved. Let’s not ignite a new one over pop culture, not even online.