Over the past few weeks, the political press has been following an elusive campaign animal. Known as the “Bernie Bro,” he typically presents as a white, male Bernie Sanders supporter who haunts Internet comment sections. He has been spotted orchestrating pile-ons on Hillary Clinton’s Facebook page and firing off tweets reducing Clinton and her supporters to their vaginas. BuzzFeed News reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro recently observed these “unruly online men” and determined that even “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.” The BBC reports that the Bro has earned Sanders supporters a “bad reputation online.” Time’s Charlotte Alter claims that he has recently been spotted in—dun dun dun—“real life.”
Or maybe the Bernie Bro is just a fantasy. On Sunday, the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald diagnosed the Bro talk as a “cheap,” “false,” “handy, all-purpose pro-Clinton smear” meant to “inherently delegitimize all critics of Hillary Clinton by accusing them of, or at least associating them with, sexism.”
My own Bro research has revealed that both viewpoints are correct, depending on how you choose to filter your Twitter feed. The divide in how Clinton and Sanders supporters view Bernie Bros—or whether they see them at all—is emblematic of how social media has accomplished the impressive feat of making American political discourse even more annoying.
The Bernie Bro first emerged in a lark of an Atlantic piece published last October. Robinson Meyer’s short and sweet portrait identified a particular strain of Sanders supporter, an individual who is so obsessive about his candidate that he has lost all self-awareness—the type of dude who rants about his relationship with feminism and writes on Facebook as if he is “declaiming in the Roman forum.”
Meyer included the disclaimers that the “Berniebro is not every Bernie Sanders supporter” and that though “Sanders’s support skews young” it’s “not particularly male.” His meditation was buttressed, though, by a series of tone-deaf pieces that served as a Bernie Bro proof of concept, essays by Sanders boosters like Walker Bragman (“Hillary’s personality repels me”); Michael Sainato (“Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton all share a common insincere, yet polished, demeanor inherent with an affluent lifestyle”); and Ben Norton, who dismissed feminist identification with a female candidate as “high-school clique drama.”
The Sanders campaign’s critics had plenty of material to work with beyond those blithely condescending columns. They could throw in a bunch of bottom-feeding social media sexists, like the poster in a pro-Sanders Facebook group who called Hillary “clitrash.” The campaign also made its own gendered gaffes, including the smug statement that Bernie was “willing to consider” Hillary for veep. Finally, there’s the tendency of online Sanders supporters to call Clinton fans corporate-shilling “Hillary bots” and to argue that journalists are “auditioning for jobs with the Clinton White House.” Put it all together, and you have a perfectly reasonable (though not unimpeachable, and certainly not universal) argument that Bernie has a little bit of a Bro problem.
But as soon as the Bernie Bro materialized, the conversation around it deteriorated. As the meme gained momentum, some popularizers stopped bothering to marshal any kind of evidence that Sanders supporters were sexist. The argument bottomed out with a Mashable article branding Sanders supporters as “a sexist mob” while doing little to justify the claim beyond conjuring the word “Reddit.” On the other side, Greenwald centered his debunking of the Bernie Bro narrative on the shakiest specimens of the genre. He chose to ignore the most substantive accounts of Bernie Bro behavior, like this piece from Sanders supporter Kathleen Geier, who says that a fellow #Berner accused her of “angling for a job in the Clinton administration” when she took note of anti-Clinton sexism online.
This is a familiar online phenomenon. Just as mansplaining “morphed from a useful descriptor of a real problem in contemporary gender dynamics to an increasingly vague catchall expression,” as Salon’s Benjamin Hart put it in 2014, the Bernie Bro argument has been stretched beyond recognition by both its champions and its critics. What began as a necessary critique of leftist sexism has been replaced by a pair of straw men waving their arms in the wind.
One persistent critique of the Bernie Bro phenomenon is that it’s unfair to single out Sanders supporters when Clintonistas are just as obnoxious. Sanders supporters have fought back against the Bro attack by producing evidence of anti-Semitic image macros and racist tweets fired off by Clinton supporters. Unfortunately, the nation’s pollsters have been busy asking Americans who they plan to vote for in the real election, not which faction is the most intolerant on the Internet. But the Hillary-people-are-just as-bad critique falls flat when you hop between Sanders and Clinton posts on Instagram or Facebook. You’ll see a lot more Sanders supporters dropping into Hillary’s feed to drop a hashtag or a burn than the other way around. When the Clinton campaign posted a photo celebrating the candidate’s close-call win in Iowa on Monday, Sanders stans scrolled over to her feed to lodge substantive complaints like “Hillary is a liar and she doesn’t care about you vote for Bernie,” “It was a tie. Probably rigged in your favor,” and “Ew. No.”
The problem here, as one Sanders supporter put it, is that “there’s just more of us on the internet in general so it probably just seems like we’re disproportionately trollish.” The Sanders campaign is justifiably proud of its clear social media dominance, and it makes sense that a larger movement would produce a bigger pool of jerks. This is not Sanders’ fault, but the Vermont senator’s own thoughtful and pleasant conversational stylings don’t make the experience of discussing the campaign with his supporters any less annoying.
In the past week, the Sanders camp has smartly acknowledged the existence of overly aggressive Bernie fans and distanced the campaign from their tactics. “We have many hundreds of thousands of supporters, and some of them have gone over the edge. I apologize for that,” Sanders told Ebony’s Jamilah Lemieux. “If you support @berniesanders, please follow the senator’s lead and be respectful when people disagree with you,” Sanders rapid-response director Mike Casca tweeted. “Above all: just know you represent our movement and be respectful with those who disagree with you,” Sanders digital media director Héctor Sigala wrote on Reddit.
Is the Democratic Party’s primary flame war the Internet’s fault? It’s at least a little bit the Internet’s fault. The online battle between Bernie Bros and Hillary bots has been compared to #GamerGate by that movement’s critics, sympathizers, and fence-sitters. In truth, any prominent online mob—Florida State football fans, the right-wing #Twitchy crew, boy band acolytes, ISIS supporters—can be caught cribbing from the same online playbook.
Everything that Bernie Bros have been accused of doing is something I’ve seen from One Directioners on Twitter—a group so displeased by an article I wrote three years ago that they invited me to sit on a chair upholstered with glass shards. Cross them, and you’re liable to be swarmed by a loosely coordinated crew of obsessives who will accuse you of rank opportunism. (“You just writted about one direction because you want fame,” or as Sanders supporters put it, “you’re a paid Hillary shill.”) They will also slide into your timeline under the auspices of asking a perfectly innocent question (“I just wanna know why are you so obsessed with one direction?” / “Why criticize only Bernie? Please answer”), make irrelevant aesthetic arguments (“gotta hide them cankles”), and add that anyone who complains about personal attacks is “discounting true criticism.”
The endlessly filterable nature of social media only exacerbates these problems. On Twitter, Facebook, and other online spaces, political debate often takes the form of anonymous randos pinging contextless nonsequiturs to one another. Thanks to Twitter’s search functionality, nearly any vile viewpoint can be conjured instantly by plugging in the right combination of terms. Try #FeelTheBern + vagina, and you’ll get a few hits from stray Bernie Bros (and some pro-Sanders women) that otherwise never would have surfaced for anyone but their own handful of followers.
For online denizens grappling with big issues, Twitter provides some instant gratification. The underrepresentation of women in government is an intractable problem with no clear culprit, but a Bernie supporter’s tweet can be screenshotted and copied and passed around; it’s so real, you can almost touch it. And Sanders supporters are right that in both politics and media, power and influence are wielded by socially insular groups, and stitching together tweets and Wikipedia articles and social media connections to make that case furnishes the Sanders in-crowd with a satisfying visual.
But for all the talk of Twitter’s democratizing power, it’s a mistake to consider these online tactics effective electioneering. In recent weeks, Sanders supporters on Reddit have written in to remind the crew that their goal is not to deliver the sickest burn or capture the perfect tweet illustrating the stupidity of Hillary supporters. Rather, they want to convince people to vote for Bernie Sanders, and the movement’s online tactics need to be suited to that end. As one Sanders supporter put it: “Being a dick alienates people who might otherwise be open to dialogue.”