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2/14/20

The media's biased, error-ridden coverage of "Bernie Bros" has failed once again

Pundits and political opponents continue to circulate allegations that supporters of Bernie Sanders are uniquely malicious and aggressive - and these allegations continue to fall apart under scrutiny.

Wednesday, Nevada's Culinary Union Local 226 alleged that "Sanders’ supporters have viciously attacked" them - a claim quickly amplified in a seemingly coordinated response by tweets from all of Sanders' major primary opponents. Later, an article in the Nevada Independent expanded on the allegation, suggesting that a Sanders supporter "referred to members of the Culinary Union...as 'illegals'".

Eventually, however, the paper added a correction:
Update 2-14-20 at 1:11 p.m. This article has been updated to add additional information about a commenter who referred to Culinary Union members as “illegals” and clarify that the commenter appears to be a Trump supporter, not a Sanders supporter.
Turns out that to discover this, you just needed to click on the author's name and discover that he's a vocal Sanders critic. One comment, for example, declares Sanders "an admitted COMMUNIST!!" But the story of journalism about "Bernie Bros" is that these allegations are often repeated and rarely confirmed. Later, for example, the Independent repeats an allegation that a union leader's "personal information was shared online" by Sanders supporters - even as the author admits that she "was unable to find the exact instance of where it had been posted."


Journalists have made this mistake before

This isn't the first time reporters have circulated sensational stories of bad Bernie Bros who, it turned out, were actually right wing trolls. In 2016, for example, New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum alleged that Sanders supporters called her a "psycho". This incident was brought up in The New Republic, Mashable, and BBC:
But when I investigated this at the time, I discovered that the Bernie Bro in question was actually a right-wing troll pretending to be a Republican Congressman based on The Dukes of Hazzard's Boss Hogg. Another poster explained to Nussbaum that an account that had called her a "bitch" was actually a 4chan troll.


Nussbaum ultimately retracted the allegation. Bernie Sanders, in a PBS NewsHour interview yesterday, suggested that he is aware of these recurring misidentifications:
...I don't know who these so-called supporters are. You know, we are living in a strange world on the Internet. And, sometimes, people attack people in somebody else's name...I'm not so sure, to be honest with you, that they are necessarily part of our movement. You understand, you know, the nature of the Internet. It's a strange world out there.

The bigger picture

Incidents like the "illegals" comment and the Boss Hogg episode have provided anecdotal evidence for the narrative that Sanders supporters are unusually combative and problematic. There is reason to believe, however, that this narrative is exaggerating the Bernie Bro menace - and ignoring the behavior of Sanders' critics.

A recent article in the New York Times, for example, spoke to critics of Bernie Sanders and His Internet Army. The piece noted that one of them, Candice Aiston, had "sparred with Sanders supporters". What it did not mention is that Twitter has banned Aiston herself for abusive behavior - in fact, it has taken the unusual step of banning her at least three times, since Aiston, in violation of the Terms of Service, continues to create new accounts.

It's not at all difficult to find Sanders critics harassing or making vile, bigoted, or threatening comments to his supporters. Here, for example, Sanders supporters have documented hundreds of incidents. But as far as I can tell, there has only ever been one significant investigation of the behavior of posters who support other candidates.

That came in 2016 - and it wasn't just anecdotal. Rad Campaign and craigconnects, working with pollster Lincoln Park Strategies, commissioned a survey of over a thousand Americans about their experiences with online harassment. Remarkably, only 16% of respondents found Sanders supporters "Very aggressive" - compared with the 30% of respondents who said the same about supporters of Hillary Clinton:

The narrative of the Bernie Bro has served as a useful proxy attack against Bernie Sanders, who (unlike other candidates) is constantly held responsible for the behavior of his supporters. It is not, however, a line of criticism that has withstood much scrutiny. Every campaign has its share of aggressive and malicious internet trolls, and it would be surprising if the Sanders campaign were any different. But the reporting on Sanders supporters has been consistently counterfactual, biased, and at odds with the only systematic analysis of the problem that we actually have.