The Democratic debate on Wednesday was rife with conflict—Mike Bloomberg faced tough questions both about his stop-and-frisk policy and sexual harassment lawsuits, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg were at each other's throats all night, and Elizabeth Warren excoriated her opponents’ health care plans as inadequate. Amid the fireworks, one significant exchange seems to have been lost in the shuffle.
NBC News debate moderator Hallie Jackson asked Elizabeth Warren if—because of online bullying and harassment—Bernie Sanders and his supporters were “making it harder for Democrats to unify in November.”
After Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union released a scorecard criticizing Sanders’ Medicare-for-All health care plan, union leadership faced a barrage of venom from supporters of the Vermont senator. Union spokeswoman Bethany Khan told the Nevada Independent they have been on the receiving end of dozens of angry phone calls, hundreds of emails, and thousands of tweets.“We will find you corrupt mother f***ers of that you can be sure and we will make sure you wallow in poverty and suffering,” one read.
“We are all responsible for our supporters,” Warren said. “And we need to step up.”
Asked to respond, Bernie gave a perfunctory disavowal of those spreading hatred on his behalf and pointed out that members of his own campaign have been subject to online vitriol as well.
“We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter, and 99.9 percent of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion, and love. And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement.
“But let me also say what I hope my friends up here will agree with is that if you look at the wild west of the internet, talk to some of the African-American women on my campaign. Talk to Senator Nina Turner. Talk to others and find the vicious, racist, sexist attacks that are coming their way, as well.”
But when pressed by Buttigieg on why his supporters tend to be more antagonistic than most, Sanders presented a new defense. “All of us remember 2016,” he said. “What we remember is efforts by Russians and others to try to interfere in our election and divide us up. I'm not saying that's happening, but it would not shock me.”
His “I’m not saying that’s happening” hedge did little to mitigate the water-muddying allegation against Russia—one that would present a serious dilemma for our democracy were it true.
So is it?
Initially, Sanders’ suggestion was met with skepticism. Of course Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, but Sanders was plainly hinting that Russia may be responsible for some of the divisive rhetoric ascribed to his supporters.
Then, the Washington Post reported on Friday that Sanders had been briefed by U.S. officials on Russia’s attempts to help his presidential campaign, though the report says “it is not clear what form that Russian assistance has taken.”
Sanders told reporters the briefing took place about a month ago, and made clear to Russian president Vladimir Putin he didn’t want his support. “Here is the message to Russia: Stay out of American elections.”
If Russia is indeed attempting to boost Sanders as the Post reports, that support could manifest itself in many forms. But experts haven’t yet seen proof that the social media bitterness of segments of Sanders’ online support stems from the Kremlin.
“We know that the Russian operation in 2016 and the follow-on operation that was taken down in October 2019 included accounts that posed as Sanders supporters, among other things,” Ben Nimmo, an expert on Russian disinformation campaigns, told The Dispatch. “But I've not seen any evidence that the recent Twitter traffic around internal splits in the Democratic Party was caused or driven by Russian operations.”
Nimmo told us the #MayorCheat hashtag targeting Buttigieg after the Iowa caucuses, for example, was launched domestically and spread primarily by American users. “The political conversation in the U.S. is so polarized right now that you don't need Russian trolls to inflame it: It's Americans doing it to each other.”
The social media platforms involved—which have beefed up their disinformation policing significantly since 2016—agree. A spokeswoman for Facebook told The Dispatch that the company hasn’t seen any evidence of such Sanders-related activity. A Twitter spokeswoman told us the company “proactively monitor[s] Twitter to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them.”
“If we have reasonable evidence of state-backed information operations, we’ll disclose them following our thorough investigation to our public archive.”
Renee DiResta—research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory who investigates disinformation campaigns on social media—explained that Russia’s previous intervention efforts often capitalized on existing divisions rather than sowing new ones.
“A lot of the perception of the activity in 2016 is that Russia created it all itself. A lot of the activity that Russia was executing in 2016 was the amplification of real people. There were a lot of retweets in there,” she told The Dispatch in a phone interview. “They did create their own content. They did create their own pages. They did masquerade using personas as various facets of the kind of American political tribes of the 2016 election. But there was also that amplification as a piece even then.”
With regards to Sanders in particular, DiResta wasn’t sure his debate comments told the whole story. “Conceptually, there's a lot of opportunities for outsiders to amplify or create division or discord on Twitter still today,” she said. “But a lot of the activity that we have seen related to online dynamics that the senator was being asked to account for is actually being driven by real people, real supporters—and particularly blue-check influencer, high-profile supporters as well. And that, I think, is where there is a challenge with that comment. So is it true that there is a potential for outside agitation to be a part of the conversation? Yes. Is it also true that what we are seeing is demonstrably domestic at this point? Yes.”
Members of the Sanders campaign—which did not respond to a request for comment—have certainly, as the senator said on Wednesday, been victim to online harassment as well. A quick Twitter search reveals that prominent Bernie surrogate and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, for example, has been called “the stupidest person in politics” and much, much worse.
But as DiResta pointed out, one needn’t look to Moscow for examples of aggressive online behavior from Sanders supporters.
“Lets make #MayorCheat stick for the rest of this mother***er's political career,” Shuja Haider tweeted after the Iowa caucuses.
“It's very important for us to create a black list of every operative who works on the Bloomberg campaign,” prominent Bernie supporter Matt Bruenig recently shared with his 157,000 Twitter followers, deleting the tweet a few days later.
These are all verified, Sanders backers living in the United States. As the Post reported, Russia may very well be interfering in Sanders’ campaign and attempting to propagate division within the United States like it did in 2016. But to pin all the hostility from Sanders supporters on a foreign adversary misses significant parts of the story.
“The risk of pointing to Russia,” DiResta said, “is that it, in a sense, is a bit of an abdication of responsibility for the very real thing that we are seeing.”
Photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders by Mario Tama/Getty Images.