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Bernie Sanders’s fans on social media have become a campaign issue. The 78-year-old Vermont senator, who has cultivated a young and passionate base of supporters, has emerged as a strong contender for the Democratic nomination. But the behavior of some of those supporters, and Sanders’s response to their actions, have sparked criticism from political observers and rival campaigns.
On Twitter and other social media sites, a sliver of Sanders supporters are known for their harsh, and at times venomous, attacks on supporters of other candidates. And although social media has been a home for rowdy political debates since its inception, critics charge that Sanders supporters indulge in a kind of online bullying that’s beyond the pale.
Some Sanders backers have also been criticized for their actions offline. Before last month’s Nevada caucuses, union leaders in the state faced profane and threatening online attacks and phone calls after the Nevada Culinary Workers Union criticized Sanders’s Medicare for All plan. The New York Times reported that some activists who were harassed online after not supporting Sanders started employing private security. Others changed their phone numbers and received death threats.
Why there’s debate
For his part, Sanders has repeatedly denounced and disavowed any harassment stemming from his supporters, and implied that some of it could be part of a Russian effort to interfere in the election. But his competitors for the Democratic nomination, alongside a number of pundits who are critical of his candidacy, say the senator hasn’t done enough to stop it.
“He may not be responsible for it, but he has some accountability,” said former Vice President Joe Biden last month. “If any of my supporters did that, I’d disown them. Flat disown them. The stuff that was said online, the way they threatened these two women who are leaders in that Culinary Union. It is outrageous.”
“Look, I have said many times before, we are all responsible for our supporters. And we need to step up. That’s what leadership is all about,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren in last month’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas.
However, some Sanders surrogates say that it’s internet culture, not the senator, that’s really responsible for any untoward online behavior. It’s impossible to control 2 million people, they say, pointing to the sheer size of Sanders’s online support. They also say that the bad actors in question represent only a minuscule fraction of Sanders’s social media backing, and that the idea that his supporters are inherently aggressive is a smear.
After strong performances in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Sanders finished second to Biden on the critical Super Tuesday. Sanders will look to stave off the former vice president’s momentum on March 10, when six primaries will take place. He’ll also be looking to quell fears that his more militant supporters repel Democratic voters already wary of the senator’s brand of democratic socialism.
Sanders needs to do more
“It is by far, of anything I’ve ever seen in my life, the most violent, most misogynistic, the most sexist, the most harmful — my mother has cried over doctored photos Bernie brothers have sent me. He has a real problem, and I don’t think he’s doing enough to tamper it down.”
— Meghan McCain on “The View”
Sanders’s actions speak louder than words
“While he might perfunctorily chide his followers, Sanders hired one of social media’s most aggressive trolls, David Sirota. Sanders cannot possibly mean to control the divisive rhetoric and animosity spewing from his camp while hiring people infamous for such conduct.”
— Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post
Reject hate, but internet culture is toxic
“Internet culture can often be very toxic ... whether we are cognizant of it or not. … To a certain extent we have to always reject hate, reject vitriol. … We also know the amount of anonymous activity that happens on the internet … and that is difficult to control. … I think he works very hard [to stop it]. We send out messaging emails.”
— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on “The View”
Stop generalizing the Sanders movement
“You’re gonna tarnish an entire movement as ‘bros’? [It] erases all the women, the women of color. There’s an ageist, a sexist, and a racist component when you generalize a diverse movement under the term ‘Bro.’”
— Peter Daou, Sanders supporter, to Vice
There’s no reason to think Sanders’s supporters will stop if he wins the general election
“Bernie Sanders may not be one of his own awful Bros, and may condemn their worst excesses. But there’s no reason to think they’ll lose their influence should he win the White House — just as Trump’s presidency has emboldened and empowered many of his own worst followers.”
— Bret Stephens, New York Times
The whole issue is a distraction from what really matters
“The 2020 election is not about which candidate is the politest, which candidate says the nicest things about their opponents, or which candidate most closely adheres to the made-up campaign rules in place since 2016 that say you can never draw any contrast between yourself and other candidates. It’s about which candidate is the most committed to fighting for universal health care, most determined to save the world from climate change, has the most far-reaching vision for turning around decades of disastrous US foreign policy, and, of course, is best positioned to beat Trump.”
— Branko Marcetic, Jacobin
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (3), Getty Images