At the start of his 2020 bid, Bernie Sanders told his supporters that he condemned bullying. Some don’t seem to be listening.
By Matt Flegenheimer, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Nellie Bowles
The New York Times|
Jan 27, 2020 | 8:06 PM
The defense from Bernie Sanders was straightforward: It wasn’t me.
He had been milling about on the Senate floor one day in the summer of 2017 when a colleague, Kamala Harris, stepped toward him. “Do we have a problem?” Harris asked, according to Democrats familiar with the exchange.
Some prominent Sanders supporters had been flaming Harris publicly as the preferred choice of the corporate Democratic establishment against which Sanders had long railed, a view amplified among Sanders-boosting accounts across social media. “Preemptive strike,” one person wrote on the popular SandersForPresident Reddit group, where Sanders fans were sharing details of Harris’ recent fundraising swing in the Hamptons with former Hillary Clinton donors. “Start the conversation now, end it before 2020.”
Sanders assured Harris that there was no issue, the Democrats familiar with their conversation said. He insisted that he could not control how his followers communicated.
But two years later, as both senators pursued the party’s 2020 presidential nomination and Harris returned to the Hamptons to collect campaign checks, Sanders broadcast an observation of his own after Harris raised doubts about his “Medicare for All” plan. “I don’t go to the Hamptons to raise money from billionaires,” he tweeted last August, elevating a message that supporters had already been pushing. Thousands of retweets followed.
Since the start of Sanders’ first presidential campaign in 2016, his colossal online support base has been by turns a source of peerless strength and perpetual aggravation — envied and caricatured by rivals who covet such loyalty, feared by Democrats who have faced harassment from his followers, and alternately cherished and gently scolded by the candidate himself.
The zeal of Sanders’ fans has helped establish him as one of the 2020 front-runners a week before the Iowa caucuses. No other Democrat attracts supporters more dedicated to forcefully defending their candidate and lashing his foes, more willing to repeatedly donate their time and money to sustain his bid. Through the end of 2019, Sanders had raised nearly $100 million from more than 5 million individual donations, without ever holding traditional fundraisers, leading the primary field.
Yet as Sanders moves to position himself as a standard-bearer for a party he has criticized from the left for decades, the power of his internet army has also alarmed Democrats who are familiar with its underside, experienced in ways large and small.
Some progressive activists who declined to back Sanders have begun traveling with private security after incurring online harassment. Several well-known feminist writers said they had received death threats. A state party chairwoman changed her phone number. A Portland, Oregon, lawyer saw her business rating tumble on an online review site after tussling with Sanders supporters on Twitter.
Other notable targets have included Ady Barkan, a prominent liberal activist with ALS — whom some Sanders-cheering accounts accused of lacking decision-making faculties due to his illness as he prepared to endorse Sen. Elizabeth Warren — and Fred Guttenberg, the father of a shooting victim from the 2018 Parkland school massacre in Florida, who had criticized Sanders’ statements about gun violence.
“Politics is a contact sport,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who supported Harris in the Democratic primary. “But you have to be very cognizant when you say anything critical of Bernie online. You might have to put your phone down. There’s going to be a blowback, and it could be sexist, racist and vile.”
In recent days, he said, one man sent a profanity-filled private message on Instagram, calling Sellers, who is black, an “Uncle Tom” and wishing him brain cancer.
When Sanders’ supporters swarm someone online, they often find multiple access points to that person’s life, compiling what can amount to investigative dossiers. They will attack all public social media accounts, posting personal insults that might flow in by the hundreds. Some of the missives are direct threats of violence, which can be reported to Twitter or Facebook and taken down.
More commonly, there is a barrage of jabs and threats sometimes framed as jokes. If the target is a woman, and it often is, these insults can veer toward her physical appearance.
For some perceived Sanders critics, there has been mail sent to home addresses — or the home addresses of relatives. The contents were unremarkable: news articles about the political perils of centrism. The message seemed clear: We know where you live.
Interviews with current and former staff members and major online supporters make clear that top advisers — and often, Sanders himself — are acutely aware of the bile spread in his name.
In February 2019, shortly after announcing his second presidential run, Sanders emailed a letter to surrogates. “I want to be clear,” he said, “that I condemn bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space.”
That he felt compelled to append this note to his national reintroduction was perhaps as telling as its contents.
The Sanders campaign declined to discuss its 2020 digital operation and the extent to which it monitored social media discussions.
A spokesman, Mike Casca, flagged Sanders’ call for civility from last February. The campaign also released a statement from a spokeswoman, Sarah Ford, emphasizing the candidate’s previous remarks. “As the senator has said loudly and clearly,” she said, “there is no room in the political revolution for abuse and harassment online.”
Sanders aides routinely decide against commenting publicly about an online spat, reasoning that to do so would only elevate the conflict. The candidate’s defenders are quick to reject any suggestion that Sanders is responsible for the most egregious conduct of his followers, who are disproportionately young and overrepresented online, when the vast majority proceed with greater care.
His allies also argue that online combat is not unique to the Sanders side, with some high-profile women who support the senator saying they have been attacked, too.
“The same folks who want to complain that Sanders supporters are more vicious than anybody else never come out to chastise the supporters of other candidates,” said Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and Sanders’ national campaign co-chair.
But many political veterans outside the Sanders operation fault the campaign’s handling of the vitriol.
Jess Morales Rocketto, a progressive strategist who worked on campaigns for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, said Sanders had empowered aides and surrogates who “have a tendency to aggressively amplify things that a campaign would normally shut down amongst supporters.”
“There are always people who say things that are problematic. It’s not that that is unique to Bernie’s campaign,” she said. “What’s unique is it is a consistent problem in the universe of Bernie Sanders.”
With more than 10 million followers on Twitter, Sanders has a larger audience on the platform than Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar combined. A sizable number could be automated bots or fictitious accounts. Federal prosecutors have detailed coordinated efforts by Russian nationals to interfere in the 2016 election, with an emphasis on two candidates — Donald Trump and Sanders — whom the Russians hoped to bolster while denigrating their opponents.
In a party gripped with anxiety about unifying to defeat Trump, the venom among Sanders backers and their counterparts supporting other candidates is of serious concern to Democrats.
Peggy Huppert, an Iowa activist who consulted for the 2016 Sanders campaign, said she had decided to support Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in 2020 “in large part because of the way he conducts himself.” She praised Sanders’ letter to supporters after his announcement but said that this message had plainly failed to resonate.
“Obama set the tone for his campaign: ‘You are positive, you are respectful, you are civil,’ ” Huppert said. “I guess Bernie hasn’t.”
In recent days, Sanders supporters have filled the social media feeds of Warren and her allies with snakes — emojis, GIFs, doctored photographs — following the candidates’ quarrel over whether Sanders had told Warren privately in 2018 that a woman could not win the presidency. And last week, Clinton resurfaced to revisit old wounds, telling The Hollywood Reporter that Sanders was to blame for permitting and “very much supporting” a toxic campaign culture.
For many of Sanders’ admirers, the interview only reinforced a conviction that traditional Democratic forces wish him political harm.
So why, they ask, should he be expected to stifle his most potent megaphone?
“You can’t control these folks,” RoseAnn DeMoro, a vocal Sanders supporter and former leader of National Nurses United, said of his online base. “I should say, ‘us folks.’ ”
2016 internet roots
There was a running joke inside the Clinton campaign’s 2016 Brooklyn headquarters: The cruelest surprise her digital team could pull on staff members was to retweet their personal account from the candidate’s handle, putting them on the radar of Sanders’ followers.
Clinton’s aides mostly marveled at the scope and intensity of an ostensible long shot’s online base.
Sanders’ supporters, now often identified on Twitter by the rose emoji of the Democratic Socialists of America, loosely coordinated in private channels on Slack, a messaging service designed for the workplace, and congregated on Reddit, posting memes, news and jokes. (Today, there are 384,000 members in the SandersForPresident group on Reddit. The central group for Biden has about 3,100.)
Top Sanders aides initially worked to assemble traditional campaign infrastructure with staff on the ground in early nominating states like Iowa and New Hampshire. But much of the rest of the map was effectively the province of volunteers, who were responsible for helping to translate online enthusiasm into in-person support.
To Sanders, who had long bet his career on the power of mass movements, the online momentum did not necessarily register as unusual, even if he did not understand all the nuts and bolts.
Zack Exley, a senior adviser in 2016, said someone once asked Sanders how he had managed to draw so many people to his events.
“What do you mean?” the candidate replied, according to Exley. That was just how movements worked.
“If you’re in that position,” Exley said, “I don’t think you’re actually curious about how they got there.”
Others suggested that Sanders was highly attuned to what was happening online. His campaign aides tracked popular hashtags and, at times, encountered caustic posts. The candidate was particularly cognizant of, and grateful for, his online supporters’ capacity for small-dollar fundraising.
“It would stun me that he wouldn’t know what was going on, positive or negative, online,” said Michael Ceraso, a Sanders aide in 2016 who worked for Buttigieg’s presidential campaign for part of last year.
While Sanders has said he does not have Twitter or any other apps on his phone, he is aware of the power of his online platform. “Given the fact that I have more social media followers than maybe all of my opponents combined, I guess we’re doing something right on that,” he told The New York Times editorial board. “What I have recognized is the importance of it.”
Ro Khanna, a California congressman who is now Sanders’ national campaign co-chair, said that the same internet that helped usher in the presidencies of Trump and Obama had made Sanders an unlikely juggernaut.
“If it weren’t for social media, if it weren’t for the use of email, Bernie Sanders would never have been a major contender,” he said. “It’s a glimpse, I think, into what the future of what campaigns may be.”
That is precisely what some Democrats fear. As the 2016 primary grew increasingly fractious, Sanders’ campaign found a drawback to such fervor: the online bullying among some supporters.
Sady Doyle, a progressive feminist author and Sanders critic who has been the subject of his followers’ ire, recalled one message she received from a stranger: “If you ever have a child, I’m going to dash it on the walls of Troy.” She said her husband asked her not to attend protests alone while pregnant.
Maya Contreras, a graduate student and co-founder of a feminist think tank who has criticized Sanders on Twitter, recalled a deluge in the lead-up to the 2016 election. “I got messages saying ‘go back to where you came from’ — which is Denver, Colorado, where I was born,” she said.
“Someone tweeted and said ‘You better watch where you’re going or something’s going to happen to you,’” Contreras added. “I also got ‘die bitch.’ ”
In person, serious violence has been avoided, it seems, though there have been occasional low-grade clashes. A May 2016 fight over delegates in Nevada included reports of thrown chairs, which some Sanders supporters dispute, and threats against the state party chairwoman, Roberta Lange, who changed her phone number after receiving a torrent of menacing messages about her, her grandchild and other relatives.
Former Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, a Clinton supporter who had been at the Nevada convention, said she worried for her safety after being booed offstage.
“After the incident, Bernie and I talked on the phone, and he said, ‘I can’t believe that, my supporters would never do that,’ ” Boxer recalled. “I said, ‘Well, you ought to get to the bottom of it, Bernie.’ ”
She said Sanders responded, “Those cannot be my people.”
By early 2016, the behavior of Sanders’ online supporters, short-handed in the media as “Bernie Bros,” had become a stubborn trope, diagnosed as a political problem at the highest levels of the senator’s campaign, even as aides largely blamed Clinton’s operation for overblowing it.
At times in public, Sanders tried to disclaim unseemly conduct. “We don’t want that crap,” he said in February 2016.
But he and his senior team also nursed a sharp sense of grievance. Jeff Weaver, a top Sanders strategist, played down the gravity of the Nevada unrest, telling CNN afterward that “no one had a right to feel threatened.”
“What happens,” he said, “is that when you rig the process and you get an angry crowd, you know, they’re not used to that.”
Building on 2016
When the story broke this month detailing the private conversation between Sanders and Warren about female electability, Sanders surrogates received a message from the campaign, advising them against going out of their way to engage with it publicly.
But later that day, Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told CNN that whoever had pushed the Warren story was lying. Shaun King, a civil rights activist and prominent Sanders supporter with more than 1 million Twitter followers, said he saw an opportunity.
Among other widely circulated tweets, King wrote that he had spoken to Warren campaign staff members who reported that she “routinely embellishes stories.” He alleged that the Warren campaign and its allies “leaked this attack against Bernie to the press for political gain.”
Eventually, Turner, the campaign co-chair, got in touch. “She called me and said, ‘Shaun, just let up on it,’ ” he said. He did, to an extent. But by then, much of the Sanders-aligned internet was about to begin tweeting snakes at Warren and her supporters en masse.
In that instance and more than a handful of others over the past year, the campaign has publicly distanced itself from the rancor. Sanders’ wife, Jane, called for unity as the Warren squabble persisted. Bernie Sanders weighed in when some followers scorched Barkan, the activist with ALS, after his endorsement of Warren. “Bernie and all of his staff and surrogates were incredibly gracious and kind when I made the difficult decision to endorse one of my heroes over the other,” Barkan said in a statement.
The campaign recognizes the possible political downsides in any extreme behavior, but aides are perhaps most wary of the “bro” portion of the “Bernie Bro” descriptor, as Sanders prepares to make his case to a diverse Democratic electorate later in the primary calendar. Ford, the Sanders spokeswoman, said opponents were perpetuating “a false myth to discount the diversity of our supporters.”
While Sanders’ poll numbers with nonwhite voters are stronger than many rivals’, female and nonwhite Sanders critics say they continue to face disproportionate harassment from ostensibly progressive forces. “People talk about white dudes getting radicalized on the right,” said Imani Gandy, a senior legal analyst for Rewire. News behind a popular Twitter account, @AngryBlackLady. “I feel like white dudes in Brooklyn are being radicalized, too.”
Candice Aiston, a lawyer who supported Harris before she left the primary, sparred with Sanders supporters last year and found herself targeted beyond Twitter: Some condemned her in Google reviews of her law practice and reported her to the Oregon state bar association, which dismissed the complaints.
(“She’s OK at her job, but her right wing ideology screams too loud,” one online review read. “Would not recommend.”)
For the campaign, the balance is delicate — tut-tutting at times without diluting the force of online support. Khanna, the congressman and campaign co-chair, called Sanders “the one person on our side who can counter what Trump’s formidable presence is going to be online.”
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This view is shared among some online supporters who have turned Sanders fandom into something approaching a full-time job. Rodney Latstetter, a 62-year-old retiree in Illinois who posted repeatedly in 2017 about Harris’ Hamptons fundraising, said he and a partner spent about seven hours a day running dozens of pro-Sanders social media groups. His Twitter page boosts Sanders and raises doubts about his rivals to more than 17,000 followers.
“Some of my followers — there are a few of them that have a little bit of an issue with their mouth or something like that,” Latstetter said, adding that he was unsure if he would support any of the other Democratic candidates if they won the nomination. “I also have my moments, too, where I have my limits, and I come out fighting.”
Such digital combat has seeped perceptibly into popular culture. Singer John Legend, endorsing Warren in a tweet this month, added a note of caution for Sanders supporters: “Try not to drive people away with your nastiness. I will happily vote for him if he wins the primary. Chill.”
This did not necessarily land with its intended audience.
“Some of you millionaires need to realize that many of us actually *need* Bernie Sanders to win the Presidency,” one account replied. “We can’t just ‘chill.’ ”