We Were Infiltrated

We Were Infiltrated 
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.

Put them on your reading list!



  1. You gloss over the “WikiLeaks stuff” as if it only revealed preferences of the DNC. What WikiLeaks revealed should anger us all. First HRC campaign directed their vast media network to prop up Trump as a legitimate candidate which saw him getting over a billion dollars worth of free coverage. They also instructed their media friends to downplay Bernie’s campaign while referring to his supporters as “basement dwellers” who are mostly young, white, and male. They talked about using his religious preference against him, they referred to Hispanic voters as the “taco vote.” What was revealed went passed the expected discourse among party leaders on how to attract voters and illustrated how they south to exploit various groups of voters, and that doesn’t even touch the massive voter suppression that took place for the first time in a primary in recent history or the possible connection between a massive child sex ring and political elites.

    By the time the convention was approaching, most of us knew that the primary had been rigged, WikiLeaks merely gave us the evidence. Those of us who are loyal to progressive values were, and still are, pissed. Our votes didn’t matter, and worse we were made to feel unwelcome in the primary process yet our votes were still expected in November. Democratic Party loyalists who “liked” Bernie during the primaries dropped him like a hot potato and rushed to the “unity” image the DNC was trying to sell at the convention.

    To make a long story less long, there was no “infiltration” of the Bernie movement. That’s what it looks like when a political party gives a giant middle finger to a sizable portion of their voting base. If you don’t understand that, you are not alone, but you should know that that unwillingness to hear and understand progressives will cost Democrats in 2018 and 2020 if you/they don’t get off your high horse. One difference between people like you and people like me is less ideological than it is procedural/tactical. You like ideas like universal healthcare, election transparency and integrity, pushing for more renewable resources, and peace, but you’re willing to accept that they’ll never work here because Republicans and half the Democrats say they won’t. As one of the last great Democrats used to say to his Democratic colleagues, “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at a certain point we have to admit that we don’t really stand for them.”

  2. Great article and I agree 100%. Its so frustrating because people do not bother to READ anything, they just see text and respond to titles. I wish more people would get smart. It looks like there is no hope and then I read something like this that makes me feel hopeful. Thank you

  3. It wasn’t only bots. I knew real people, long time friends, really smart people who stopped thinking critically during the campaign. For example, when Bernie’s economic advisor was quoted as having promised unprecedented growth in GDP in the first year (I think it was 4%) due to single payer health care and free post-secondary education, I wrote a post saying that while I thought those policy changes would obviously have long term economic benefits I didn’t see how they could boost GDP that much in the first year. No one bothered to engage with my question. Rather, I was accused of not wanting to challenge the neo-liberal model or worse that I was supporting Hillary. No one tried to explain how GDP might experience that kind of growth. No one tried to excuse it as mere campaign hyperbole that was distracting from deeper truths Bernie was championing. The most substantive reply I got was from a guy who forwarded me a link to the article in which the adviser had promised the 4% growth.
    I think a religious fervor took over the Bernie movement that made serious conversation about his policies taboo.

  4. It may be true, but I would certainly like to see some proof of what you are referring to, but I do not agree with your rather anti-climactic assertions that Clinton lost because it was the “bots” fault, or the implication that we should not have been angry or upset by the entire phony process of our elections! What I really don’t understand is that you seem to be ignoring the fact that Clinton cheated Bernie out of the nomination with massive election fraud which is what created the extreme anger by the millions of followers who truly care about him and our country! They not only cheated him, they cheated all of us, and the voters had every right to be very outraged. Wikileaks provided the information that proved Clinton, Podesta, and the DNC were doing all they could to obstruct and sabotage his campaign and of course they were getting a lot of help from corporate media, as well! But the final straw, for me at least, was the despicable and unforgivable way Bernie was treated at the convention, along with all his delegates and his supporters! The DNC, Clinton, and Obama deliberately and so obviously strove to demean, belittle and humiliate Bernie the entire week, and everyone there for him was mistreated in numerous ways! What they did to him was thoroughly disgusting, deplorable and completely devoid of any class or political decorum. I have never seen anything like it, and hope never to again. I cried for him when I saw what they were doing. The final icing on the cake was when Julian Assange admitted that Bernie and Jane were threatened by the Clinton thugs, and forcing him to start campaigning for her! I still feel sick and want to cry every time I think about it. I will never comprehend why he didn’t denounce the democrats and the party for what they did to him, or why he still is fighting their fight for them because he would have had no problem winning by running on a third party ticket at that point. The democrats don’t appreciate him and all his efforts on their behalf. They still seem to think they did nothing wrong, and have no desire to change their establishment, status quo mentality. All the lies, deception and horrific backstabbing by the DNC have caused millions of voters to leave the party for good and re-register as Independents. So though I know nothing about “bots” infiltrating our social media, I do know that Clinton lost because most people hate her for what she did to Bernie along with all her other illegal activities, corruption, and lies upon more lies! As a NH voter I was lucky enough to be able to write-in Bernie, where his votes were actually counted, so I didn’t not have to vote for either one of the worst candidates this country has ever seen! Since not everyone could do that in other states, many people didn’t bother to vote for either one of them because there really was no lesser of two evils in this election!

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