Future Tense

The Bernie Bubble

There’s an important variable in the Sanders campaign’s unlikely rise: how ideologies cluster on the social Web.

Bernie Sanders.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders participates in the PBS NewsHour debate with Hillary Clinton in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Feb. 11, 2016.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Image by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images,

Bernie Sanders is running an anti-establishment campaign, and anti-establishment candidates are not supposed to win. And yet the Vermont senator, who represents a more progressive and economically redistributionist alternative to the Democratic Party’s mainstream, is within 14 points of Hillary Clinton’s lead in national polls, narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses, and won the New Hampshire primary by a more than 20-point margin. In part because of his robust support among younger voters, in recent weeks pundits have started declaring Sanders “the future of the Democratic Party,” in spirit if not immediate electoral chances. There are a lot of plausible diagnoses for how a candidate who wasn’t even a member of the Democratic Party a year ago could now be its presidential nominee. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie pointed to the toll of the Great Recession on younger people. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought long-ignored civil rights issues to the foreground. And going forward, the death of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will surely add an extra dash of chaos to both major primaries. But there is also a structural social issue that has enabled Sanders’ rise: the ability of the Internet in general, and social networks in particular, to cloister off and amplify political ideologies on the left and right alike.

Just as Fox News and talk radio carved off a group on the right that brooked our current era of no compromise, the architecture of how we consume and share information online has begun to do the same to a very different class of left-wing voters. (As we’ve all witnessed, that effect applies to mass enthusiasm outside of politics, too, building large new niches from the bottom up.) This generation has partially replaced traditional mainstream establishment narratives with localized media bubbles. And so far, the Democratic primary voters among them are rejecting Hillary Clinton in surprisingly large numbers.

This effect is sometimes called a filter bubble, the coinage of Upworthy chief executive Eli Pariser. The idea is that your preferential actions on the Internet, from clicking on search results to liking Facebook posts, have a feedback effect that steers similar content toward you and pushes contrasting content away, further reinforcing your beliefs. Researchers have disputed the existence and extent of these bubbles, in part because the data and algorithms driving them simply aren’t that accurate. Last year, Facebook published a study that claimed that its news feed algorithm didn’t significantly contribute to a filter-bubble effect. Critics (including me) argued that the study was inconclusive, but Facebook also said that users themselves were creating such bubbles. Political scientist David Lazer echoed that conclusion in his commentary on the study, writing, “It is plausible … that friends that Facebook infers you to care about also tend to be more ideologically aligned with you as well, accentuating the filtering effect.” However Facebook’s filtering algorithms may be exacerbating the issue, the raw data did indeed show evidence of news bubbles for users on the political left and right.

So why does this matter in the 2016 election? Because there is a good case that a feedback loop of increasingly doctrinaire partisan media and self-selecting political groupings on social networks has helped create the fertile ground that the Sanders campaign has masterfully leveraged to boost its once-remote chances.  

When I examined Facebook’s released data closely—using it to understand which media were shared on the network by self-identified moderates, liberals, and conservatives—I found two gullies on the left and right, each containing a significant number of news sources that were read solely by the partisans of their respective wing. (The study population was 10 million users, including 4.5 million Facebook classified as liberals.) “[T]hese sites,” I wrote, “are locked into a feedback loop of increasingly feeding red meat (or blue meat) to a hungry partisan base, which aggressively shares their content among like-minded friends, while moderates and opponents ignore them. This goes for Salon just as much as Rush Limbaugh.” This parallel didn’t exist before our current era of the social Web, when no left-wing media network or group of outlets could rival the influence and message discipline of cable and talk-radio pundits on the right. But the data released by Facebook—in addition to the rise of left-wing sites such as Raw Story, Media Matters, and Salon—suggested that the Internet had finally managed that feat.

Chart by Slate

Just as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News fed a rabid, ideological conservatism that yielded the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus and now culminates in Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the left has created its own bubbles that encourage a more severe distrust of the status quo—a sharp turnaround from the Democrats’ moderate 1990s and even the cautiously progressive Obama era.

In the social-media era, these bubbles and the media that feed content into them can create feedback loops in which ideology takes a far stronger, and stricter, role than it had previously. Stories from high-volume publications like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and the Guardian often spread virally based on their resonance with a specific set of left-leaning or outright leftist political values. And the most viral of these are often less about the nuts and bolts of politics than they are about visceral social issues, with examinations of privilege and the patriarchy infusing coverage of everything from mass shootings and police brutality to video games to Halloween costumes. In 2016, leftist politics—and leftist media—feels larger and more austere and purist. And its permitted bounds of disagreement feel narrower.

Even a site like Vox, with its wonkish Beltway origins, now frequently tilts hard to the left, with headlines and sentences like: “Bombing a hospital in Afghanistan is the modern American way of war”; “If you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record … then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem”; and “Riots are destructive, dangerous, and scary — but can lead to serious social reforms.” This kind of systemic critique butts against Vox writers’ more pragmatic praise for Clinton’s candidacy, for her knowledge of “the painful trade-offs of governing” and her “audacity of political realism.” Judging by retweet counts, such lukewarm endorsements are far less compelling than the righteous excoriations of injustice with which Vox also fills our news feeds. In recent weeks, articles on Sanders’ success have topped 500 retweets, while Clinton’s best showing notched fewer than 250. For that younger audience, Clinton’s pragmatism and incrementalism no longer feels sufficient. And Sanders has expertly tapped into that sense of injustice with ads like Erica Garner’s moving endorsement, which possesses an intensity far more potent than anything Clinton’s campaign has mustered to date.

The tone and focus of this political coverage is not sufficient on its own to explain the rise of Sanders. But the structures of the social Web have amplified a shared sense of impatient dissatisfaction that Sanders expresses and Clinton does not—a problem deepened by the shortcomings of Clinton’s campaign and the underlying problem that, as my colleague Michelle Goldberg puts it, “Clinton is not a very good politician.”

Social media, I’d argue, was the necessary component to make those flaws serious liabilities. To Clinton and to many others, Sanders certainly didn’t seem like a threat even a few months ago, and 10 years ago, he wouldn’t have been. Prior to a generation of voters that grew up with the Internet, there was nowhere near as much room to take advantage of a gap in establishment strategy as there is this year. (Even candidates like Barry Goldwater, Eugene McCarthy, and Ted Kennedy had more establishment backing than Sanders does.) Online social networking has allowed Sanders supporters to reinforce one another’s beliefs, so that the general shutout of Sanders by the mainstream media—and even a good deal of the leftist media—allowed Sanders to survive where he would have suffocated even in 2008. The Internet made it much, much easier for Sanders supporters to organize, with a core of young voters far more native to the Web than even Obama’s base eight years ago. It did so by catalyzing bubbles of would-be Sanders supporters who would have the strength to reject Clinton collectively rather than acclimate to her candidacy. This might be the crux of Sanders’ strength among the young: The more time you spend online, and the less you care about traditional, broader media sources, the more time you’re spending with people who think just like you do. And that’s the lesson Facebook has announced over and over: People like spending time with people who agree with them! Little wonder, then, that the fights over the Democratic primary on my Facebook wall feel so much nastier than the ones that took place in 2008: Everybody seems to have forgotten how to interact politely with others with whom they disagree.

Sanders’ success suggests that the greater freedom of interaction enabled by the Internet has led to less willingness to compromise. My father may criticize me for being unrealistic in supporting Sanders, but my thousands of Facebook buddies say otherwise! Not that there isn’t ample historical grounding for such a critique of the establishment. Sanders’ young voters grew up amid the incompetence of the George W. Bush administration; saw a series of disasters, from the Iraq War to Hurricane Katrina to the financial crisis; took out historic levels of student debt; and found that their job opportunities were in most ways worse than their parents’, even as enormous investment banks got bailed out after the economy tanked. For many of them, this confirmed something that young people have suspected since time immemorial: The system is rigged. And Clinton looks like one of the puppet masters.

Young voters may prize incremental Obama victories like the Affordable Care Act. Yet his presidency has done little to insist on accountability for mortgage fraudsters, torturers, financial executives, or intelligence agencies conducting illegal surveillance; it has not, in other words, restored moral authority to government itself. Likewise, polls reflect how people like their own representatives yet loathe Congress. Yet that itself is an indicator of Clinton’s problem: Because Obama hasn’t rehabilitated the system, a person like Hillary Clinton, who unlike Obama is incontestably of the system, will take on the negatives associated with it. And the negatives, in tone and content, make up a larger chunk of what the partisan media focuses on these days—or at least that’s what goes viral. When sites like ThinkProgress and the Guardian flood my Facebook wall, it is generally in response to a catastrophe or injustice of some kind, be it Trayvon Martin, Martin Shkreli’s price-jacking, or Flint’s water crisis. (And sometimes it’s an argument in a Yale quad about Halloween costumes.) By providing partisans with a bubble of like minds, in which they harp on the defects of the system to the near-total exclusion of any virtues, the Internet may well have turned the bulk of a generation of progressives against Hillary Clinton—and much of her party with her.