Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Bots and Nots in the Sanders Sib Community

Twitter protestations notwithstanding, I find it wholly plausible that Russian bots masquerading as Bernie supporters are the culprits behind some of the toxic online abuse that goes out under the pro-Bernie flag.

And contra some, I don't think that this means that the Russians are "backing Sanders" in any meaningful respect. This is a chaos play -- it's a way of sowing division; there's no implied commitment to any underlying policy preference. When Russian trolls simultaneously promoted both pro- and anti-Muslim rights rallies, it was not because they couldn't decide which side of the issue they fell on. The chaos was, and is, the point (although Sanders' backers could stand to reflect as to why his campaign represents such an alluring vector for sowing mistrust).

However. Being a Democrat who is under the age of 35, I know plenty of Bernie Sanders supporters. The majority of them are normal, pleasant people who are supporting their preferred candidate in normal, pleasant ways.

But I've certainly seen a contingent -- not a majority, but a vocal one -- of the Sanders supporters I know who do endorse or at least excuse the sort of abusive behavior and toxic conspiracy-mongering that Sanders himself has long repudiated. I know this culture is real, and not just a case of bots, because I see people who I know are real partake in it.

The recent story of the Bernie Sanders staffer whose private Twitter account was brimming with vicious, brutal, often misogynistic attacks on rival candidates provides a case in point. This was disgusting behavior, and the Sanders campaign to its credit immediately canned the staffer once it went public.

But many of Bernie's supporters, instead of taking the easy route of "wow, this was terrible stuff -- I'm glad he was fired!", instead elected to pile on the reporter for covering the story at all. The preferred objection -- and I saw this from multiple people who I know are real flesh-and-blood humans -- is that because the account was a private one, the staffer's remarks could not be harassment.

There are, to be sure, indications in the article that the staffer also might have been anonymously responsible for other instances of insults and invective that were made through public channels. But leave that aside. The "it's not harassment if it's a private channel" would be a pedantic objection under the best of circumstances -- yes, it's true that Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren themselves weren't in a position to see the tweets, but nobody is under any illusions as to how "private" messages of abuse circulated to campaign backers the vast majority of whose accounts are not private contributes to a culture of abuse and maltreatment.

It is normal, and not strange, for internet harassment campaigns to begin with and by nurtured by conversations on sites and fora where the vast majority of posts are not intended to be and likely never will be seen by the putative target. The reason that these conversations on reddit or 4chan or wherever nonetheless matter isn't because the objects of their hatred could theoretically read them. It's because of what they precipitate out -- "private" conversations where edgelording and abuse and brinksmanship are encouraged and cheered on become the fermentation ground from which the "public" harassment springs. Eventually, someone takes it both seriously and literally.

And even if none of that were the case, the apologia still boils down to "he was only privately spreading misogynistic abuse (to 4,000 of his closest friends)." Is that really the hill people want to die on?

It was frankly shocking how many real-life people I know who, when confronted with objectively atrocious, grotesque, hateful behavior by a Sanders staffer, responded by trying to pooh-pooh the importance of the issue because technically it wasn't "harassment". On that note, while the article juxtaposes the staffer's behavior with Sanders' condemnation of online harassment and clearly considers the two to be part of the same family (which they are), it generally describes the posts as "toxic" or "abuse". The second paragraph is indicative:
But the private Twitter account of a newly promoted campaign staffer indicates that despite his condemnation of online harassment, at least some of the Vermont senator’s most toxic support is coming from inside the house.
Perhaps it is fair to say that the article is implying that the staffer's behavior is also harassment. But the nitpicking effort to reframe the issue as about the technical distinction between "harassment" versus purely private abuse -- as if that debate, even if it were resolved against the reporter, would reveal the greater evil here -- was terrible, if illustrating, to witness. It reflects not just the abusive culture itself, but the wider circle wherein the abuse is apologized for, denied, minimized, or viewed as a smear -- a form of toxicity that, if not as visceral as the direct offenders, nonetheless is a necessary auxiliary to it.

Not every Sanders supporter is a "Sanders Sib". The vast majority are normal, reasonable people who support Sanders in normal, reasonable ways. But the fact of the matter is that -- augmented by bots or not -- the cadre that has earned the Sanders Sib label has largely come by its toxic reputation honestly. They're not being framed. They're not being held to unreasonable standards. They have their reputation because of what they -- flesh and blood humans -- do, and tolerate, and excuse. I know it's not bots, because I've seen it from people who I know in real life.

It won't stop me from voting for Sanders if he is the nominee in November (among other reasons, even if I didn't care about substantive policy at all and my criteria for voting was solely "which candidate has the most toxic base of internet support", Sanders still would be orders of magnitude better than Trump). But I'm not going to pretend like reality isn't there.

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