Bernie and the Bots

The 2016 election was a hoot. Or it was a farce. Or it was an outrage. It was something. Facebook had, then, its newsfeed up top for everyone. No one managed that. It was automated. If a news item was something everyone was reading, or something everyone was pointing to, so others would read the item, or something everyone was talking about even if no one read the item or anything else, then a link to that news item rose to the top of the page. That was “trending” – so go get hip. The Pope just endorsed Donald Trump. Ireland was offering refuge and Irish citizenship to any US citizen freighted by the idea of living in a country led by Donald Trump, or led by Hillary Clinton. There were also those news stories about Hillary Clinton running that child sex ring with John Podesta – out of the basement of a pizza shop in Virginia. And of course there was that video of the black professional football players burning the flag, and cheering about it, right there in the Seattle Seahawks locker room. It was all fake but forwarded around everywhere. The Russians had been busy generating this stuff. Americans did the rest.

The election was odd in another way. No one liked either candidate very much. But at least Hillary Clinton wasn’t Donald Trump. He was awful and she would have to do. Hold your nose and vote for her. And some felt the opposite. He was awful but at least he wasn’t her. Hold your nose and vote for him. But everyone liked Bernie Sanders. He was cool. Hillary Clinton had knocked him off in the primaries, but he was still cool. But no one could vote for him. Writing in his name would mean nothing. That wouldn’t change the outcome. And the rest is history. The truly awful person won, and the truly awful person lost – but it could have been the other way around. Bernie Sanders was left behind, bewildered.

That was absurd. Bernie Sanders is taking care of that. He’s running again. The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan covers the launch this time:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is off to a splashy start in his second run for president, quickly trumpeting a massive fundraising haul in his first 24 hours as a candidate, luring millions to his Tuesday announcement video and brawling with President Trump – signs of his potential to become a major factor in the Democratic primary.

He’s a contender:

The initial surge and one-day receipts of $6 million reflect a resilience of support for the Democratic runner-up in 2016 and served notice to his competitors, who have so far been unable to create the same groundswell with their campaign launches.

It also reinforced the strength of his established political base at a moment when other candidates are only beginning to introduce themselves to voters. That is an asset that could prove valuable, should the contest splinter the party into many different pieces.

So far, so good, but for this:

Sanders, 77, also is confronting a radically different political landscape than the one he faced four years ago and potential obstacles toward regaining the surprising strength he showed in 2016, when he benefited from being the only serious opponent to the eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

This time, he is facing a crowded and diverse field of challengers who, if not able to match Sanders’s fundraising prowess, have demonstrated some financial strength and have played to overflow crowds in the early voting states. Some of them are doing so with the help of staffers and supporters who backed Sanders in 2016.

That’s cruel. He is damned old, even if that’s not his fault. And everyone liked his ideas and is pushing them now, often thanking him, publicly – but sidelining him. And that might be for the best:

Bernie Sanders has yet to prove he can expand his appeal past his limited, if loyal following of younger voters, mostly young men. He had particular issues in 2016 in attracting older women and nonwhite voters, two Democratic blocs whose electoral prominence has only grown in the past two years.

And there’s this:

Sanders has faced scrutiny over the way his campaign team handled sexual misconduct claims in 2016 and, perhaps most challenging, is no longer the sole advocate in the race for liberal priorities such Medicare-for-all, a higher federal minimum wage, free community college and other policies embraced by many in the field.

In fact, this may not work, but there is this:

The surest sign of Sanders’s standing in the Democratic field may have come from the president the Democratic candidates are seeking to defeat. President Trump appeared to be trying to elevate the firebrand liberal as part of a broader attempt to cast Democratic candidates as far-left extremists, as he escalates his effort to win a second term.

“Crazy Bernie has just entered the race. I wish him well!” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. On Tuesday, a Trump campaign spokeswoman issued a statement seeking to tether other candidates to him.

Yeah, well, bring it on:

A couple of hours later, Sanders responded with his own social media missive and a link to a page on his website where people can provide their contact information.

“What’s crazy is that we have a president who is a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe and a fraud. We are going to bring people together and not only defeat Trump but transform the economic and political life of this country,” Sanders tweeted, words that echoed his announcement.

And so it begins:

Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, is signaling that he plans to run a campaign reprising many of the signature themes he highlighted in 2016: Medicare-for-all, combating income inequality and aggressively addressing climate change, among other things.

Cool, but Henry Olsen thinks not:

Bernie Sanders is likely to find that he can’t recapture the magic once he goes back out on tour.

Sanders’s 2016 debut effort was the definition of catching lightning in a bottle. His fiery progressive populism resonated among the Democratic left and the young, both of whom hungered for a different tune. Hillary Clinton had scared every other significant competitor out of the race but proved to be an especially poor campaigner unable to find a convincing rationale for her candidacy. The combination of these factors caused Sanders to rocket up the charts…

That last word was chosen carefully:

Today, however, Sanders’s songs are not novel. Just as the Beatles begat a host of imitators, it seems that virtually every Democratic contender sings some sort of Bernie-inspired tune. He launches a new single, “Medicare-for-all,” and suddenly most other Democrats are covering it. The hot new artist from the Bronx, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who goes by the stage name “AOC” – launches “The Green New Deal,” and suddenly he’s the one covering someone else’s tune.

Progressive politics is hot, and like the disco era in the late 1970s, it seems there’s a new successful act every minute.

That may be a bit too clever, but this is clear:

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has moved into a close third in most polls and has the benefit of being a younger person of color – a fresh act, so to speak. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has her fans and is releasing new, original work of her own, such as a wealth tax and a national child-care plan. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) has brought youth, charisma and even performance art to his progressive act. Bernie no longer has the stage to himself.

History shows this is likely to seriously hurt Sanders.

But maybe all that can be worked out. All these people agree with each other on just about everything. They’d all say they like everyone’s ideas here – and they’d fight for them too. The only real differences are in age and style and race and whatnot – those things that determine no more than emphasis. This won’t be Trump sneering and mocking those startled and resentful other Republicans in that battle the last time, where they sneered back and mocked him, and where he turned out to be far better at that than they were. Democrats don’t do that sort of thing, at least not very often.

They’ll be fine, or maybe they won’t. Politico did some research. Vladimir Putin has a plan:

A wide-ranging disinformation campaign aimed at Democratic 2020 candidates is already underway on social media, with signs that foreign state actors are driving at least some of the activity.

The main targets appear to be Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), four of the most prominent announced or prospective candidates for president.

So here we go again:

A POLITICO review of recent data extracted from Twitter and from other platforms, as well as interviews with data scientists and digital campaign strategists, suggests that the goal of the coordinated barrage appears to be undermining the nascent candidacies through the dissemination of memes, hashtags, misinformation and distortions of their positions. But the divisive nature of many of the posts also hints at a broader effort to sow discord and chaos within the Democratic presidential primary.

And this is a comprehensive effort:

The cyber propaganda – which frequently picks at the rawest, most sensitive issues in public discourse – is being pushed across a variety of platforms and with a more insidious approach than in the 2016 presidential election, when online attacks designed to polarize and mislead voters first surfaced on a massive scale.

Recent posts that have received widespread dissemination include racially inflammatory memes and messaging involving Harris, O’Rourke and Warren. In Warren’s case, a false narrative surfaced alleging that a blackface doll appeared on a kitchen cabinet in the background of the senator’s New Year’s Eve Instagram livestream.

And somehow Vlad seems involved:

Not all of the activity is organized. Much of it appears to be organic, a reflection of the politically polarizing nature of some of the candidates. But there are clear signs of a coordinated effort of undetermined size that shares similar characteristics with the computational propaganda attacks launched by online trolls at Russia’s Internet Research Agency in the 2016 presidential campaign, which special counsel Robert Mueller accused of aiming to undermine the political process and elevate Donald Trump.

That may be the plan:

“It looks like the 2020 presidential primary is going to be the next battleground to divide and confuse Americans,” said Brett Horvath, one of the founders of Guardians.ai, a tech company that works with a consortium of data scientists, academics and technologists to disrupt cyberattacks and protect pro-democracy groups from information warfare.

They are hard at work:

Amarnath Gupta, a research scientist at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California at San Diego who monitors social media activity, said he’s also seen a recent surge in Twitter activity negatively targeting three candidates – O’Rourke, Harris and Warren.

That increased activity includes a rise in the sheer volume of tweets, the rate at which they are being posted and the appearance of “cluster behavior” tied to the three candidates.

“I can say that from a very, very cursory look, a lot of the information is negatively biased with respect to sentiment analysis,” said Gupta, who partnered with Guardians.ai on a 2018 study…

According to the Guardians.ai analysis, Harris attracted the most overall Twitter activity among the 2020 candidates it looked at, with more than 2.5 million mentions over the 30-day period.

She was also among the most targeted. One widely seen tweet employed racist and sexist stereotypes in an attempt to sensationalize Harris’ relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

And this will only get worse:

At this early stage, the campaigns themselves appear ill-equipped to handle the online onslaught. Their digital operations are directed toward fundraising and organizing while their social media arms are designed to communicate positive messages and information. While some have employed monitoring practices, defensive measures typically take a backseat – especially since so much remains unknown about the sources and the scale of the attacks.

One high-level operative for a top-tier 2020 candidate noted the monumental challenges facing individual campaigns – even the ones with the most sophisticated digital teams. The problem already appears much larger than the resources available to any candidate at the moment, the official said.

That’s depressing, but Martin Longman offers a bit of hope:

If you create an army of faux-supporters of one candidate who are abusive to real supporters of another candidate, then there’s a good chance that the two camps will have grave difficulty in reconciling for the general election. We saw this in 2016, where fake BernieBros deliberately launched misogynistic attacks and inflamed hard feelings about how the Democratic National Committee handled the primaries. Later on, they called into question whether the Russians had really been responsible for the hacks and promoted alternative explanations, like the Seth Rich murder conspiracy story.

This was crippling in its effectiveness. But it only worked as well as it did because there were only two camps to divide. I’m hoping that it will be more of a challenge to divide and conquer the Democrats when there are thirty or more camps to divide.

But that is only hope, not a plan, so Longman offers this:

Democratic voters will not be able to avoid being subjected to these kinds of aggressive influence operations. Many will willingly participate in them when they see it as advantageous to their preferred candidate. They’ll share disinformation because it confirms what they want to believe or because they cynically think it will serve their cause. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, people will do the work of the social media trolls for them.

So don’t do that:

If you want to be a responsible citizen, you should resist this whole process. Sharing posts that are disparaging of other candidates should be done very selectively, and only after you’ve satisfied yourself that they contain factual information vetted by responsible reporters. When anonymous people behave badly in the name of a candidate, you should presume that they’re not actually supporters of that candidate or even necessarily supporters of the Democratic Party or even necessarily American citizens. Pointing at their bad behavior and sharing it widely to harm a candidate is likely to be exactly what they want you to do.

So don’t do it. Act like Democrats, not Republicans. But that’s hard. Putin is good, and Trump smiles – and Bernie is running again. It would be nice if that mattered, but maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Did you hear that…?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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