FAIRFIELD, Iowa — The internet is home to the best of the Bernie Sanders campaign — the grassroots, youth-powered, bottom-up energy of social media fueled Sanders’s challenge to Hillary Clinton.
But the social web has also shown off the worst of Sanders supporters. Writing in her endorsement of Clinton this week, progressive writer Joan Walsh complained of harassment from online supporters of Sanders that the Vermont senator's campaign aides have been aware of for months. Walsh called them “the Berniebot keyboard warriors,” but they’re more commonly referred to as the Bernie Bros.
In fact, top Sanders campaign aides have quietly reached out to senior officials in the Clinton campaign and women like Walsh personally to apologize for Bro behavior. Online, aides are pushing their digital community to police itself and keep the Bros quiet. And some volunteer members of Sanders’s digital army are scrambling into action, reporting offenders and moderating bro-y posts.
Still, the Bros break through, and there’s real worry in corners of Sanders-world about it.
“Their vaginas are making terrible choices!” wrote a Sanders supporter in the comments under a photo of New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Clinton. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum recently complained of being called a “psycho” and a “bitch” on Twitter after saying something positive about Clinton.
A lot of the Bernie Bro activity is short of that kind of open harassment, and is more shouty explaining, or smug "mansplaining." It is, though, a style of discourse that's anathema to the progressive, feminist quarters of the internet that share many of Sanders' policy views.
In her essay, Walsh described their “fascinating and stunningly sexist reactions” to her support for Clinton and wrote it was especially tied to the fact that her daughter is a Clinton staffer. Her daughter also gets hit with sexist social media trolling by accounts purported to be run by Sanders supporters, Walsh said.
Women who support Clinton — or work for her and support her — have consistently cited a barrage of sexist attacks across social media. In the manner of GamerGate trolls or men's rights activists, according to women who have dealt with them, Bernie Bros swarm, pummeling their chosen target with tweets. It’s become a trope among women who work in politics or cover it.
Online feminist activist and television writer Nina Bargiel tweeted this arch take on life with the Bernie Bros: “The best safeword is ‘Bernie Sanders’ because the second you use it 17 people show up to yell at you,” she wrote.
The tweet was quickly retweeted by many women in politics, among them Jezebel founder Anna Holmes. They speak often of the prevalence of Bernie Bro attacks.
There’s a racial aspect, too. From the earliest days of Sanders’s campaign, white Sanders supporters dismissed or harassed Black Lives Matter protesters who criticized Sanders. This was a break from the candidate’s reaction to them — Sanders sat down with protest groups and made championing their cause a centerpiece of his campaign.
Bros are pretty confident their bro-ing is a service to Bernie.
An Ohio graduate student who tweeted at Walsh, "I'm tired of @HillaryClinton channelling resentment to run as the female. What if Barack did that as a black man?" explained to the BBC that the tone of his critiques was carefully crafted.
"I target these talking heads in the media who have a high perch, these great liberal thought leaders, when they're not — they're tools of bourgeois," he told the British broadcaster.
None of this is a surprise to people who work in the Sanders campaign or support it online, and the fact that it continues to exist worries them. Every minute and every caucus-goer counts in an Iowa race that Sanders alternated between calling “nip and tuck” and “tied” on the trail Thursday.
This is not to say that hyper-aggressive digital supporters are solely a Sanders problem. New York progressive pundit Jonathan Chait argued that Sanders supporters aren’t “especially mean” versus other partisan digital hordes. And at a campaign stop here Thursday, actress and Sanders surrogate Susan Sarandon said Clinton supporters have come after her with gendered attacks too. Sarandon said she has suffered "a lot of sexist talk because I chose to support Bernie Sanders and not a woman."
But the Sanders campaign and the Sanders digital army are aware that the Bros are a real issue, a dangerous and unruly crowd that can shock even the closest Sanders supporters. And so, at the Burlington, Vermont, Sanders headquarters, they’re trying to do something about it.
Shortly after Monday night’s Iowa Democratic candidate town hall in Des Moines, Sanders’ director of rapid response, Mike Casca, tweeted a simple but urgent request to the Sanders’s digital cohort. Cool it, he begged. The tweet is now permanently pinned to the top of his feed.
The Iowa town hall hosted by CNN, the last nationally televised forum where all three candidates would share the same stage before the Iowa caucuses, was seen by all sides as a tipping point for the Bros — on Twitter, they ravaged Clinton supporters while Sanders backers looked on in dismay.
Behind the scenes, Casca reached out to the Clinton rapid response director, Christina Reynolds, and to Walsh, via direct message onTwitter to apologize for the Bro behavior.
For Sanders aides like Casca — young, progressive, digitally literate — the fight against the Bernie Bros is personal and impassioned. Under Casca’s direction, the campaign has promised to do a better job of policing its digital ranks.
“The digital space is so critical to Sen. Sanders’ success and because of that we want to work to make it safer for everyone to come and exchange ideas — no matter which candidate they support,” he told BuzzFeed News in an email. “That should be a goal of all the campaigns. We all know there’s already enough hate on the internet.”
The effort has not gone unnoticed. A prominent woman who backs Clinton and has been trolled by the Bernie Bros asked that Casca’s efforts be included in any story written about them. “He is in a field apart when it comes to taking the high road and asking their supporters to follow,” she said.
On Reddit, Sanders’s digital director, Héctor Sigala, told Sanders’s digital army to join the fight against the Bros. The campaign speaks very frankly with its digital cadre, whose volunteer efforts are a huge part of Sanders’s current success and whose political and grassroots sophistication is the envy of most of the candidates running for president this cycle.
Sigala’s message: The Bros are making it tougher for Bernie and they need to stop.
“We love our supporters and we know we wouldn't be here without you all, but it does add a layer of complexity when we have to track what you all do during some moments when we are shaping our messaging,” he wrote. “Above all: just know you represent our movement and be respectful with those who disagree with you.”
Walsh said she senses the Sanders campaign is aware of what is going on, and urged the campaign to step up its efforts to push back.
“I think they are getting concerned that they have this set of keyboard warriors who revel in insulting women, not just Hillary,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I think they just have to get that message out more aggressively. I don't blame Sen. Sanders personally, at all. But it is disturbing to see such a misogynist strain in the male left. It's not a new thing, but it's tough to experience.”
Online supporters of Bernie are also frustrated by the Bros.
Kate Isham is a “Call Team Mentor” on the Sanders Reddit page, a big part of the online volunteer base Sanders regularly activates for phone banks and fundraising. She told BuzzFeed News she has stepped in when she sees Bro-ishness, and that being a woman who participates in the online space, she’s had to develop a thick skin of her own when it comes to bro-ish behavior in general.
“I honestly mostly roll my eyes at it. I'm kind of inured to rhetoric like that at this point,” she said. “My main concern is how it reflects on us, and so I do either try to call someone in on how that makes potential supporters feel and remind them why we're here and that we're in this together.”
Isham has reported users who fire off the “more far-out there” stuff, she said.
Reporting is often not well-received, Bernie redditor u/Polyneophite told BuzzFeed News. (The user preferred to be identified only by the Reddit handle.)
“On regards to how often I say that [to them] at least a few times a day online, sometimes much more often. Sometimes I don't see any,” Polyneophite wrote in a private message (PM) exchange when asked how often Bros need to be called out for potentially costing Sanders support.
“The usual response is a knee-jerk down vote in response, sometimes an angry PM,” Polyneophite went on. “Got told to kill myself once, not really surprising. More common than the angry PM is a response saying something like, ‘You are right, Bernie wouldn't talk that way.’ I count those as wins.”
Online Sanders supporters always stress in conversation that the vast majority of Sanders supporters aren’t Bros — and they claim many of the so-called Bros can in fact regularly be found posting in conservative forums.
“The internet is full of angry trolls looking for reactions, with Media already spinning stories of Bernie supporters being all young white men it doesn't take much to raise tempers, which is really all that some people are after,” Polyneophite wrote. “There are sexist Bernie supporters of course, but I find them easier to correct. Generally a ‘hey, thats pretty sexist’ puts an immediate end to that. Then users with names like /TRUMPTRUMPTRUMP show up to yell about PC police ruining everything.”
Curating the internet, cleansing it of its general nasty tone that erupts at any controversy, minor or major, is of course one of the hardest challenges of the digital age. Supporters point to the Reddit page, the central command center of the Sanders volunteer mothership. Policing is heavy on the page, and women who support Sanders say it works. A place where trolls feel unsafe on Reddit is rare, and the Sanders supporters are proud of what they say they have created there.
“I think it's ironic, because of all the online supporter spaces I've been in, Reddit is one of the least prone to this kind of bad behavior despite Reddit's reputation as an anti-feminist space,” Isham told BuzzFeed News. ”I don't think it's because Reddit is inherently a virtuous space; we moderate that community tightly, and then once people realize bad behavior will result in you being shown the door, it encourages other people to behave civilly.”