Inside Democrat Facebook's vicious civil war
Members of Bernie Sanders' Facebook army have learned to be cautious. Spies hide around every corner; infiltrators lurk behind even the friendliest friend requests.
According to popular theory, which has been repeated so often in copy-paste memes that it's widely treated as truth, the Clinton campaign has armed hundreds of professional Internet trolls with the goal of sabotaging Sanders' Facebook groups. They sneak into closed communities with fake names and profiles, the rumors say, then post wild rants to make Sanders' supporters look bad. Or they file thousands of fake abuse reports to Facebook, until the groups are overrun and their pages go black.
In pro-Hillary groups, meanwhile, Clinton supporters make much the same claims about trolling, spamming, even coordinated harassment campaigns. In fact, among a certain hyper-dedicated class of Democratic voter, there's a widespread conviction that they're engaged in an all-out social media war -- a war that's grown so paranoid, and so illogical, that in late April, two people's lives were unceremoniously upended over what turned out to be a Facebook database error.
"We have a lot of angry people," said the moderator of one Sanders group, speaking about American voters generally. And when angry people pack into partisan forums, where anything could arguably be fiction and the hive-mind rules all, you're bound to see the most dramatic, inane reaches of our political freefall.
Like most battles on the Internet, the decisive clash of the Clinton/Sanders war began with exclamation points: "Bernie groups are GONE from Facebook!!!!," a panicked supporter wrote on the evening of April 25 in the Reddit forum r/SandersforPresident.
As the user reported, a half-dozen popular and public Sanders groups had summarily gone black around 9 p.m. Eastern time, without so much as a warning message to page administrators. Those groups include Bernie Sanders Activists, Bernie Sanders for President 2016, Bernie Sanders is my HERO and Bernie Believers -- which, among the four of them, have more than a quarter-million members.
Group administrators didn't know what had happened and promptly admitted as much on Facebook and Reddit. Running a public political group of this scale is an unwieldy, time-consuming and frequently thankless job: At any given time, a single bad actor can start a flame war, file a bad abuse report or otherwise do something troll-y and stupid.
Sanders groups were plenty familiar with these sorts of trolls -- this is, after all, Facebook war. There are almost ceaseless allegations, on both sides, of harassment, brigading, astroturfing and sock puppetry: terms that describe coordinated, oppositional online campaigns, the feigned impression of grassroots support and fake online identities.
But by far the most persistent accusation involves the specter of paid trolling -- harassment and disruption on a professional scale. One Clinton supporter told The Washington Post that Sanders had entire floors of recent college grads trolling out of rented offices in Virginia and Maryland; another man, this one a Sanders supporter, relayed the belief that Clinton's paid trolls were so sophisticated, they were recruited by headhunters. And everyone fears their opponents will silence them by spamming their groups with abusive material and then reporting it en masse, despite the fact that Facebook says such a tactic wouldn't work: They manually review all reported material before taking action on it.
Those conspiracies have flourished in recent weeks, thanks in large part to a pro-Clinton super PAC called Correct the Record. Just last month, the organization launched a $1 million initiative, called Barrier Breakers, to "engage in online messaging" on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Unsurprisingly, the other side saw malice in the vague announcement, though Barrier Breakers has actually been both relatively milquetoast in its social media activities.
"Currently, Barrier Breakers is pushing out only positive content, and anyone reporting otherwise is not reporting the truth," said Elizabeth Shappell, Correct the Record's communications director, in a statement to The Post. "The investment in Barrier Breakers is in personnel and infrastructure, and everyone who is paid for this project is a full-time staff member of Correct the Record."
Nonetheless, in the moments after the Sanders Facebook pages closed, suspicion turned immediately to Correct the Record and the Clinton campaign. In a rapid-fire Reddit thread, as well as on Twitter, Facebook and Imgur, Sanders sleuths began compiling screenshots that they believed could finally prove there was a coordinated spam-and-report campaign by paid trolls.
First, reports surfaced that several supporters had spotted pornography in their groups that afternoon. Meanwhile, other supporters believed they'd identified three paid Clinton trolls who had bragged in closed Clinton groups about reporting Sanders pages for abuse. As evidence, they proffered three posts: one that said "HA!" beside a screenshot of a successful abuse report; another, an exhortation to a Clinton meme group to "keep reporting any Bernie Sanders groups you see"; and the third, a vague comment from a woman named Nyssa Cruz, which said she had "gleefully reported" some unidentified thing. She later told The Washington Post it was a pornographic image, posted in a progressive group.
"EVIDENCE, ladies and gentleman," trumpeted one Sanders supporter above a gallery of the screenshots, which was posted to Bernie Sanders Admirers at midnight on April 26. The post has since been shared more than 1,000 times, with the addendum that Correct the Record is "the real culprit."
That edit may have come a little late, however: In that thread, and in its clones spreading across Sanders Facebook, angry Sanders supporters had begun publishing the addresses and reporting the profiles of the "trolls" named in the screenshots.
Someone started a Change.org petition accusing one of the posters of disseminating child porn, though there's no remote evidence he did any such thing. (The petition, with more than 8,500 signatures, is one of the first results that comes up when you search the man's name.) Cruz began getting threatening Facebook messages calling her "disgusting" and hoping that "someone in Texas finds out where you live." In the group Uncensored Progressives, one man posted her home address, phone number, résumé and a list of suspected relatives.
"It's been hell," said Cruz, who has changed her number and filed a report with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center. "I had a panic attack."
Panic had, meanwhile, begun to subside in the Sanders camp. The suspended groups reappeared early in the morning of April 26, and Facebook attributed the suspensions to a database error not long after that. As it turns out, more than 2,000 groups, most of them non-political, were affected.
"A number of groups were inaccessible for a brief period after one of our automated policies was applied incorrectly," a Facebook spokesperson said. "We corrected the problem within hours and are working to improve our tools."
Cruz has been working to remove the nasty comments from her professional Facebook page, where she's campaigning to be a Clinton delegate. Here lies a striking illustration of the senselessness and spite of modern politics: a woman scrubbing abuse out of her inbox, because she dared report a gross and unfunny meme for being pornographic.
None of this is to suggest, mind you, that Clinton supporters are blameless in the great Facebook war: One Sanders supporter accused Clintonites of stealing photos of his 13-year-old niece from his page in order to make fun of her; others claimed Clinton supporters have Facebook-friended them in order to flood their inboxes with vitriol.
If only such tactics could be blamed on the Internet or the campaigns -- that would be comforting.
Tensions remain high on Democrat Facebook, a week after the so-called "Bernie purge." Despite reassurances from Facebook and the Sanders campaign itself, many Sanders supporters remain unconvinced that they weren't the victims of paid trolls. Now, many of the groups that were previously public are either secret or closed. There's renewed anxiety in some corners, several admins told me, about Clinton infiltrators.
Some weary fighters have, it's worth noting, begun scaling back their attacks: They point out that in a mere two months, the Democratic Party will decide the battle for them.
Until then, they soldier on against the "trolls," "bros," "bots" and "shills," willfully ignoring the dull reality that it's just ordinary people on the other end. This isn't just Facebook trolling, after all: It's a fight to the death.