To State the Obvious: “Bernie Bros” aren’t Russian Bots (UPDATE)

Hannah Gais
Apr 2, 2017 · 5 min read
Russia, which is known for its embrace of democratic socialism.

There’s a bogus article up at ShareBlue that’s been making the rounds on what appears to be a complete misreading of the recent intelligence hearings on Russian electoral interference. (Yes, I realize the statement “bogus article up at ShareBlue” is a bit repetitive, but bear with me.)

The piece, from Senior ShareBlue writer Leah McElrath, focuses on a largely overhyped aspect of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s first hearing on Russia and the 2016 election. For those who haven’t hate read it yet, here’s the key passage:

When it was revealed during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that Russian bots (computer algorithm controlled social media accounts) on Twitter had masqueraded as “Bernie Bros” during the 2015–2016 election cycle, it was not news to me — it was confirmation of my experience.

A great deal of the abuse came from so-called #MAGA accounts, the “Make America Great Again” hashtag by which Donald Trump supporters, and those pretending to be such, identified themselves. As more and more information came out about Trump’s ties to Russia, I began to suspect — correctly — that many of these accounts were not real people but rather were accounts with fake identities or bots. . . .

However, the rest of the abuse came from accounts purporting to be supporters of Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. And these were “people” with whom I believed I shared common values and policy interests. Almost all of the accounts presented as men — mostly young and white — and used sexist and misogynistic tones and words. I was called “mom” and “grandma” as epithets by these “young men.”

Let’s be clear: Twitter has been a medium through which suspected Russian trolls did wage disinformation campaigns. Thanks to reporting from the New Yorker’s Adrian Chen and others, we know that there are several institutions that do engage with comment threads and social media with the intent of spreading false information—or even simply trolling.Though these groups have focused largely on Ukraine and other countries in Russia’s “near abroad”—as well as Russia itself—they do engage with Western audiences as well—albeit on a significantly less frequent basis. And while it’s unclear what their impact is on public perception in the West, it is clear that they’re a real and present force.

But McElrath makes no effort to present any evidence of these “troll farms” at work—and for that matter, she doesn’t even bother to cite the hearing directly or quote anyone who participated in the hearings. Her evidence is even flimsier: she notes that trolls referred to her as a “vagina,” not the “c-word,” which she takes as clear indication that they’re not native English speakers. (As someone who has been to Russia and spent a measurable amount of time around English-speaking Russians, I can assure you: they know how to swear.) She does, however, cite a wildly overblown article from the left-wing tabloid Raw Story (disclaimer: my work has been reprinted for them; I’ve never written there nor have any intention of doing so), which proclaims that “Russians used ‘Bernie Bros’ as ‘unwitting agents’ in disinformation campaign: Senate Intel witness.”

Curiously, the quote the story draws upon actually doesn’t back up that headline—nor, for that matter, does the CBS story the piece is aggregated from. Instead, both outlets cite Dr. Thomas Rid, a professor at Kings College London’s Department of War Studies, who noted that Russia’s influence was helped by “unwitting agents.” He identifies three: WikiLeaks, Twitter, and “overeager journalists” who pored over emails leaked from the Clinton campaign and those surrounding her.

Rid has a point, but it’s not one without its share of controversy. But what ought to really be hammered home is that he is not saying anything about the specific or measurable effects these “unwitting agents” had on the election. Furthermore, nowhere does he say that Sanders’s voter base acted as “unwitting agents”—nor does anyone say that “Bernie bros” were Russian bots. This quote from Gen. Alexander is about as close as you can get.

I think what [the Russians] were trying to do is drive a wedge within the Democratic Party between the Clinton group and the Sanders group, and then within our nation between Republicans and Democrats. And I think what that does is it drives us further apart. It’s in their best interest. We see that elsewhere.

And then there’s this from Clinton Watts of Georgetown University:

But the Democrats—they were there too. They were with Bernie Sanders supporters trying to influence them in different directions. So they play all sides.

That’s a far cry from “Russia has a wellspring of pro-Bernie Sanders bots.” Though there has been some reporting of bots going after pro-Sanders groups and pages, it’s been limited. Here’s Politico in September reporting on the work of Vlad Shevtsov, a Russian computer programmer.

But Shevtsov found thousands of bot accounts with variations of the name “Order followers” — barely disguised bots — among those retweeting the former secretary of state. During the Democratic primary, Shevtsov also tracked a large network promoting Bernie Sanders. When Sanders received bad press because a group of supporters known as “Bernie Bros” was apparently harassing journalists online, his digital director, Kenneth Pennington, suspected the Vermont senator was being set up by opponents looking to manufacture negative headlines.

If there was a “pro-Bernie” social media bot army, it was small. And frankly, it was also ineffective. A vast majority of Sanders supporters backed Clinton; whatever vigorous anti-Clinton sentiment supposedly “infected” them as a result of Russian active measures was, well, lame.

But above all, this shows an even more distressing trend—and one that actually poses significantly more danger to us, especially those of us on the left. Using Russia as a crutch for all problems is tiresome and ineffective—especially when it comes to something so ungodly pathetic as using Russia as crutch for something as trite as misbehavior online. Not only is it useless, but it’s also unbelievably self-centered. And in the Trump era, that’s a truly bad look.

UPDATE (4/3): I’ve been inexplicably blocked by ShareBlue. Why? Well, it would appear Leah McElrath is their Twitter director.

Usually, real news organizations take constructive criticism better. And by “better,” I mean don’t block writers focused on the subject they bungled.

If God is Dead…

Hannah Gais’s personal blog.