During a less contentious phase of the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders stated what every political observer knows:
I can’t think of many personalities who have been attacked for more reasons than Hillary Clinton. And by the way, let me be frank and I’m running against her: Some of it is sexist.”
Author Anita Finlay uses the term “Internet terrorism” to describe the ferocious attacks against feminists (and Hillary Clinton supporters) online. As a forceful Hillary advocate, I know exactly what she means. And so do countless others who use social media to express their support for the Democratic frontrunner.
I’ve been writing about the venomous online environment for months and it appears the problem has reached a tipping point.
From the BBC:
After the 25 January Democratic town hall, Emily Nussbaum, television critic for the New Yorker magazine, tweeted some positive feedback for Hillary Clinton. About a half an hour later, she followed up with this: “Man, the Feel The Bern crew (as opposed to Bern himself) is such a drag. Say anything pro-Hil & they yell ‘bitch’ & ‘psycho.’ V idealistic!”
Others – including a number of prominent members of the media – followed with their own reports of seeing Sanders supporters deploying vicious rhetoric towards anyone questioning the Vermont senator or his backers. Author Sady Doyle said her tweets about Sanders supporters resulted in “several hundred angry notifications in a 24-hour span from that cohort,” she wrote. “Someone also said *I* should die if I thought some Bernie supporters were kinda sexist.”
Sarah Jeong, a journalist who is the frequent target of sexist attacks, has received so much vitriol in the name of Sanders she set her Twitter account to private – even though she too is a Sanders fan.
According to the BBC, it’s not just gender bias, but racial bias as well:
Sexism is not the only bad behavior demonstrated online by Sanders supporters – an ugly racial element has arisen, too. “I’ve gotten everything from ‘shill’, ‘paid infiltrator’, to flat out having somebody actually call me a N***** in the midst of this,” says Elon James White, CEO of This Week in Blackness, who has been critical of Mr. Sanders’ record on race.
None other than Bernie’s New Hampshire communications director weighs in:
A Sanders communication director in New Hampshire chimed in as well: “Let’s all #FeelTheBern respectfully — no place for misogyny or vitriol.”
Kudos to the Sanders campaign for trying to elevate the discourse. The problem for them is that a significant portion of the trolling is likely coming from the right, not the left.
As I wrote yesterday: An increasing number of people have voiced suspicion that the ferocious trolling instigated by the slightest positive mention of Hillary has its roots in shadowy conservative astroturf operations.
Paul Krugman alludes to it here:
Right now I’m getting the kind of correspondence I usually get from Rush Limbaugh listeners, although this time it’s from the left — I’m a crook, I’m a Hillary crony, etc., etc.
A substantial cohort of the most virulent anti-Hillary trolls seem to be working from a script, echoing longstanding rightwing frames, referencing Vince Foster and Whitewater, thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories that predate the adulthood of Bernie’s millennial supporters. It’s no secret that Republicans are actively trying to tilt the election to Bernie, in a belief, mistaken or not, that he will be easier to defeat than Hillary.
Look no further than this Bloomberg headline: Republicans Take Their Sanders Advocacy to the Next Level.
We’re working on tracing these suspicious and clearly coordinated online attacks to the GOP’s billionaire funders and rightwing operatives, who have openly admitted to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to destroy Hillary’s public image.
The Washington Post uncovers a perfect example:
Something happened Tuesday that exposed the pervasive nature of sexism in American political life. It came in the form of this hashtag: #WordsThatDontDescribeHillary. As far as we can trace it, the hashtag appeared to come from [a] tweet by conservative radio talk show host Doc Thompson at 12:20 a.m. Tuesday.
Doc Thompson is connected to Glenn Beck, which leads to the unpleasant conclusion that Bernie Sanders supporters who jumped on the hashtag were goaded into doing the right’s dirty work by spreading lies about the Democratic frontrunner.
The result of this torrent of invective directed at Hillary supporters is twofold. First, since most of Bernie’s younger supporters get their political news online, some have become convinced that Hillary is the world’s worst human being. It doesn’t help that the national media echo rightwing anti-Hillary narratives and reinforce false impressions about her. The combination of online lies and media irresponsibility (not to mention Maureen Dowd-style vendettas) account for negative perceptions of Hillary.
The second outcome is the unanticipated one for Hillary’s detractors: Many progressives who would otherwise express more qualified support of Hillary are being pushed into full-throated advocacy. Joan Walsh’s piece is just one of a recent flood of opinion pieces from the left questioning Bernie and his campaign.
If Hillary wins the nomination, it will be due, in no small part, to the savagery of the systematic trolling that she and her supporters have been exposed to from individuals who we believe are anonymous and organized GOP operatives aided by a segment of misguided Bernie supporters.
Which brings us back to #WeWontBeErased, chock-full of beautiful declarations about what Hillary’s candidacy means to Americans of all ages and genders. The tag is also inundated with the usual, by-now-numbing, anti-Hillary memes. Here’s the point: When enraged trolls hijack a tag about the empowerment of women and girls, the backlash is against Bernie, not Hillary.
UPDATE (1/29/16): Last week, BNR argued that the Sanders campaign risks a backlash from anti-Hillary trolls and the media are quickly catching on. Jezebel reports that the Sanders camp is getting concerned about the backlash. The challenge for Bernie is that GOP troublemakers are exacerbating the problem, which has turned into an outright mob effect targeting anyone who supports Hillary online.