Like many of you, I lived through it. It happened before my eyes. But I didn’t understand what I was seeing.
Rachel Maddow opened her March 21 broadcast with a story about how the Bernie Sanders social media movement was infiltrated by malicious bots, originating mostly in Eastern Europe. Others came from Panama. They came to where we congregated on social media. They posed as Bernie supporters. And they changed the nature of the discourse. (See below for video)
I am an old-time progressive. Been a Bernie Sanders supporter for decades. Since he was the Mayor of Burlington Vt. During his years in the House and the Senate.
I could not have been more thrilled when he announced his candidacy for President. And I watched in awe as smart, cynical millennials flocked to him. Baby boomers who had been part of the last big wave of social change movements seemed to have woken up after decades of slumber. My peers, who were a surprisingly apathetic generation were there too.
It was a movement!
I joined at least a half a dozen social media groups focused on Bernie, as well as other progressive online groups. At first there were stimulating discussions on income inequality. Climate change. Access to higher education. Single payer healthcare. Corporate greed. Minimum wage movements happening in different states. Immigration reform. Veterans issues. Pharmaceutical prices in the US, compared to the rest of the world. Working families forced to pick between medicine and rent. Drug addiction as a mental health issue, not a criminal issue. Private, for-profit prisons, high incarceration rates, and the need for criminal justice reform.
I am not sure when I started to see the deterioration. Sure. Leading up to the convention there was a lot of anti-Hillary stuff. The anger was amplified, of course, after the Wikileaks stuff about the DNC. And there were legitimate gripes about voting issues in many primary states. But there was something else going on.
The smart discussions started to deteriorate. By the time we got to the DNC, it was already strange. Bernie issued very clear statements, that no one seemed to read or hear. Instead, the Bernie pages were swamped with stories of how Hillary had all of her opponents murdered. 45 cases, I think. Bernie was beaten up by “Hillary thugs.” Jane’s life was threatened. That is why Bernie nominated Hillary.
I posted some of Bernie’s own words on various Bernie Facebook groups. Within moments of posting, there were dozens of responses calling me a “Hillbot.” Linking photos that purportedly show marks on Bernie’s dour face, with stories of how he had been physically pummeled into submission.
Attempts to engage in discussions degraded into a battle of non-sequiturs. “Hillbot!!!!” “At least Trump won’t start a war the first day like Killary will!” “F#&% TPP!” Unflattering pictures of Hillary, with nasty memes. Dozens of them. Almost instantly, any discussion screeched to a halt. There was just noise. Lots of noise.
I kept trying. Writing blogs and posting on multiple sites. Trying to stimulate productive discussions. Some pieces included:
It broke my heart the first time I was “removed” from a Bernie group. The first time I was removed for quoting Bernie. The next time, when I was removed from a different site, it hurt again. I think I was removed a third time before I modified my behavior, and carefully refrained from arguing in favor of reluctantly supporting Hillary in order to defeat Trump in any group that focused on supporting Bernie. Yeah. I did. I altered my behavior.
By late October, the Bernie chatter on social media had deteriorated into three camps.
The first camp were still voting for Bernie. These posts were dominated by people proudly photographing their absentee or early voter ballots with Bernie’s name written in. Often just Bernie. Not even a last name. Often in states that don’t allow write-ins. These posts were doused with praise. Some real. Some, perhaps, automated praise.
The second camp were the Stein supporters, who proclaimed that Bernie was a sellout, and that Stein was the only choice to continue the movement.
The third camp were the anti TPP folks. They proclaimed that TPP was the only really important issue facing the nation today, and that Hillary had wavered on TPP. That Trump was the only option.
Most of my smart, progressive friends watched in horror and dismay and bewilderment. How could so many mindless voices have replaced those smart, hardworking progressives who had been the force behind this movement? This movement that started out with so much energy? So much promise? So many articulate activists promoting social change?
Bots. They were bots. A few lines of code that tracked certain words, and then automated responses. Spread the memes and fake news and bizarre non-sequiturs every time we tried to engage in discussions.
Watch Rachel Maddow’s piece below.
Ok. So it happened. And it worked. Stein got more than a million votes, skimmed off of former Bernie supporters. In most states, Bernie got tens of thousands of write in votes. And an unknown number of disgruntled voters stayed home.
Trump won the election.
But the movement wasn’t destroyed. Far from it. The Women’s March. The spontaneous protests at airports all over the nation in response to the travel ban could not have happened without the networks that were formed during the elections. At town hall meetings all over our nation, citizens are demanding that our healthcare not be stripped away. Sanctuary movements are popping up all over the country.
And Bernie is still out there. Doing the work that he has always done.
But the attacks on us are not over. This style of information warfare is still in its infancy. This is going to happen again. It is going to happen in 2018. And it is going to happen in 2020. It is probably happening now. New scripts are being written. Deployment is being tested.
We need to get smarter. We need to be prepared. We need to NOT be distracted by mindless memes. We need to focus on content. On action. We need to use these amazing social media tools productively. And not let them be used against us.
We can do this. We need to. The stakes are too high to fail.
Here are some great books about covert actions and informational warfare in the era before social media.
A lot has changed. But a lot has remained the same.