The Migration of Bernie Bros on Social Media

A Version of this article originally appeared in mUmbrella June 16th 2016

Well that’s that. Bernie Sanders has all but conceded the Democratic Nomination to Hillary Clinton, vowing to work alongside her to defeat Donald Trump.

Compared with the apathy of Australian voters around our own election, the U.S. election is proving to be an outspoken and unpredictable one. With three big players echoing battle cries across Twitter, and legions of loyalists running away with social campaigns and twisting them into digitally-led movements.

Bernie’s bowing out of the race leaves a large portion of his passionate following (known colloquially as Bernie Bros) disenfranchised. Conflicted by their cult-like love for him and unadulterated hatred of Hillary Clinton.

The question is: will they back Hillary or go nuclear and hop aboard the barrelling #TrumpTrain?

I decided to look to social media to show me how far right the left will be willing to go.

My theory being that Bernie Sanders’ grassroots digital movements could be tracked similarly to a commercial social campaign, albeit one that has grown beyond the confines of its creator’s intended architecture and has taken on a life of its own. Think #YourTaxis, but with implications that could decide the fate of the free world.

Using social insights platform Crimson Hexagon I ran an analysis looking at last week’s conversations held by Bernie’s supporters across Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Youtube as well as blogs and forums.

Being Australian and not part of the U.S. zeitgeist, step one was to identify how conversation were structured and what was driving sentiment. The Topic Wheel below shows how conversation trends were segmented last week which helped me identify the broad themes of the social media conversation.

Click to enlarge

Last week’s California primaries saw top hashtags in the Twitter conversation include #NeverHer #BernieOrBust and, most prolifically by Bernie’s people, #FeelTheBern.

Controversy around press outlets making an early announcement of Hillary’s victory over Bernie sparked outrage on social media, sending ripples of propaganda accusations. Bernie Bros are livid, claiming the media is trying to bury Bernie and discourage Californian voters, who were yet to poll.

This is reflected in the prominent spike in social conversations around this period.

There has been growing concern that the fractured support in the Democratic party will help Trump’s campaign. The #BernieOrBustmovement seems to be split between three camps: those who refuse to vote at all if Bernie is not an option; those who will never give Clinton their support and may vote Independently; and those who plan to turn their back on the Democrats altogether and support Trump.

This is a damn interesting development when you compare it with Australian politics. Comparatively the major parties in Australia haven’t managed to elicit anything nearly as passionate from even their most hardcore followers.

The closest thing to Sanders’ grassroots uprising would be The Greens, but even they seem to be relying on half-cooked memes and a Senator active on social media to try to move the masses on from conventional options.

The difference is that Sanders represents the closest thing to a third option for President of the United States by standing for values both traditionally Democratic and Republican and therefore attracting a significant portion of voters away from two party allegiances. Something the Australian Greens might benefit from adapting.

Data journalism blog FiveThirtyEight reported last month that a government poll showed 38% of Sander’s supporters have a favourable view of Clinton, many don’t identify as Democrats — aligning more closely with Independent. This is a concern for Hillary, who will need to unite as many of these voters as she can if she is going to confidently face down Trump at the polls.

Migration Patterns of the Common Burnie Bro

I could see the conversation was growing, but how was it changing? Where was the allegiances of Bernie’s supporters realigning?

Crimson Hexagon’s sentiment detection algorithm was trained to track the migration of sentiment in Bernie’s corner of the social media landscape across the last few days. The resulting social analysis is a little terrifying to those who don’t want to see the White House turn into next season’s location for The Apprentice.

The conversation was broken down to isolate those supporting Bernie and provide analysis on the individual sentiment trends specifically expressing a change in voting preference.

Across the three days around the primaries, 29% of Bernie’s supporters voicing their changing political stance in the eventuality of his defeat have said they will be dropping support of the Democratic Party –19% of those have said they are joining Team Trump.

The Lesser of Two Evils

Another 31% are on the fence or simply standing by Bernie with the now iconic hashtag #FeelTheBern, or imploring for him to run as an Independent.

Some Democratic loyalists are staying true blue, 40% either backing up Hillary Clinton or just doing whatever they can to keep Trump out of office.

Looking to social media data provides a snapshot of the migration of widespread sentiment. What could Turnbull, Shorten or Di Natale do to rouse us from our sleepy indifference and drive allegiances as strong as the big U.S players have in this election? Certainly more than posting memes.

It could be argued that Clinton’s supporters aren’t as passionate as Sanders across the board. Though many of them are willing to back her when Sanders does. Will that be enough to bring together a unified vote against Trump?

That will be decided on November 8, until then the social media battleground will war on with or without the Bernie Bros allegiances. Stay tuned, Canberra, you might learn a few things.

Brodie Evans
Social Analyst