Have you ever had the following experience? You’re having a conversation online. You’re conducting a debate in what you believe to be good faith. You might even think to yourself “well I disagree with this person but at least we’re talking about the issues in an intelligent manner.” The moment you start to feel comfortable the person you’re talking to lashes out. “Oh you’re impossible. I’m blocking you.” One moment you were petting a friendly tabby. The next moment you get scratched. You try to figure out what happened. Was it something I said? Do they hate me because I’m a Polish American? Should post a better selfie? Was I engaging in some kind of logical fallacy? Am I just that same little boy my parents used to watch like a hawk every time we visited relatives just in case I said the wrong thing? Or am I just talking to a crazy person or a Russian bot?
The answer is both “all of the above” and “none of the above.”
Having a conservation online is a fundamentally different experience from having a conversation in “real life.” You don’t make eye contact. You don’t pick up on physical signals. You can’t get a sense of what the other person is feeling by listening to the tone of his, or her voice. You could get “canceled” for doing what I just did, using “he” as the universal pronoun, or accused of being “transphobic” for adding in the “she” to cover all your bases. In reality, in every conversation on the Internet, there are really only two people speaking. You and a machine. The machine is of course my Lenovo T450 Thinkpad I bought from B&H Photo 3 years ago for 600 bucks. It’s also the Ubuntu Linux operating system, and whatever servers I access on the Internet. Above all, the machine is the coding of the social media platform, the newspaper comments section, or the blogging platform which provides the forum for my online conversation.
The machine isn’t run by ordinary people like you and me. While any undergraduate computer science major can code a social media platform, what actually gets used is determined by a small group of advertisers, and wealthy venture capitalists, the corporate media, and the United States government. Twitter, for example, received a tremendous boost in 2009 during the student protests in Iran when the State Department saw it as a possible way to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The Atlantic even labeled the protests as “Iran’s Twitter Revolution.”
If the United States government sees social media as a useful tool, however, the primary motivation for most big social media companies is profit. From Twitter, Facebook, YouTube all the way down to the comments section at your local newspaper, one principle holds true. “If you’re not paying for something online, you’re the product.” Social media companies want to harvest your personal information, not only for the NSA and CIA, but for advertising companies who want to map trends. While I may have gotten banned from Twitter in February of 2019, my Tweets aren’t going away. You can’t see them, but they’re still on Twitter’s servers. They belong to the machine, forever. In the unlikely event I ever run for President, I guarantee you that the management at Twitter will “accidentally” leak every Tweet I ever made saying “fuck the police” or “long live Hugo Chavez.”
While commenting on social media provides a superficial sense of being empowered — look at me I have all these friends and all these people who think I’m a genius — deep down inside most people realize they’re being exploited, that they are in fact the raw material for a vast data mining operation. When people express their discontent, the way they express their discontent usually provides the machine with even more of their personal data. Pompous white men like me, who rarely have any cause to feel threatened online, will say something like “people on social media are uneducated idiots.” Black people will say “people on social media are racist.” Women will say “people on social media are sexist.” Gay people will say “people on social media are homophobic.” People on the extreme left will say “Twitter and Facebook are fronts for the CIA.” Zionists will say “Palestinians on Facebook are antisemitic.” Social justice warriors will maintain that your words are “actual violence.” Conservatives will say “the Internet is a liberal conspiracy against Donald Trump.” Liberals will argue that everybody who hates them is a Russian bot. Rich, liberal white women who support Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren will demand to see the manager.
That brings us to Bernie Bros, the idea that online supporters of Bernie Sanders are significantly more obnoxious, more sexist, and more racist than supporters of his Democratic opponents. While Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg have taken the place of Hillary Clinton as the most prominent critics of Sanders’s supporters online, the term dates from a 2015 article in The Atlantic by a writer named Robinson Meyer. While Meyer has since rebranded himself as a climate change specialist, he got his start in journalism writing hit pieces against followers of the long shot progressive Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “The Berniebro,” Meyer wrote, taking advantage of the fashionable anti-hipster sentiment of the day,”is someone you may only have encountered if you’re somewhat similar to him: white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, “upper middle-class”); and aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands.” But Meyer’s real objection to “Bernie Bros” wasn’t that they were hipsters. It was that they were socialists.
The Berniebro doesn’t really have a good answer when you ask why the Democratic Party, which has spent six years explaining how its market-based health-care policies aren’t socialist, would ever find national success nominating an actual democratic socialist.
As I have written previously, unlike the Republican Party, which is a rock solid alliance of big business and social conservatism, the Democratic Party is fundamentally split between a largely progressive, even social democratic base, and a reactionary, neoliberal elite. While the former want the party to address the material needs of the American working class, the latter want more money for the military and intelligence agencies and less money for public healthcare. The former want to talk about Medicare for All. The latter want to talk about Russia. Nevertheless the Democratic Party elite do not consider themselves conservatives. They consider themselves the most moral, open minded progressive people in the world. Thus, they’re shocked by just how far right, and how far left the American people have been polarized over the past decade. Every time a “Bernie Bro” accuses an elite, Ivy League Democrat of being part of the “establishment” the elite, Ivy League Democrat suddenly feels a bit like Mr. Jones in Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man. He’s not so hip anymore. There’s something going on and he don’t know what it is.
Thus, in response of the precipitous lurch of the Democratic Party rank and file to the social democratic left, the Democratic Party elite had to find some way to manufacture the illusion of popular support online. They started out by weaponizing the traditional loyalty black voters in the South had to the Democratic Party, conveniently omitting the historical process whereby African Americans, traditionally loyal to the “Party of Lincoln,” switched to the Democrats in the 1930s to support Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. In 2016 there was no way Sanders, an independent from a small, mostly white state in Northern New England with little or no name recognition among black voters in the South, would take the South Carolina primary. Clinton supporters, however, didn’t say “nobody in South Carolina knows who Sanders is and James Clyburn is going to endorse Hillary anyway.” They said “Bernie has trouble speaking to black people,” implying that the working class Jewish progressive who had relatives die in the Holocaust was a racist. Sanders had also said some admittedly “problematic” things about immigrants lowering wages for the white working class, a position he has since reversed making him the overwhelming favorite among Hispanics.
The Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party elite, however, went beyond simply calling Sanders a racist to make him unpalatable to African American voters in the south. They weaponized discontent about social media in order to suppress the Democratic Party’s working class base. As has been widely reported, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party elite have always had a close connection to Silicon Valley. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard professor and Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama Administration, has written extensively about how the elites can suppress popular discontent online, going so far as to suggest that the elites perform “cognitive infiltrations” against conspiracy theorists, who are still mostly on the far right, but which Sunstein made clear included anybody who attributed nefarious motives to the American ruling class.
The idea that Donald Trump is some kind of master of social media is ridiculous. Trump is a grotesque racist cretin who got lucky. He also started Tweeting with a substantial base built by big money libertarianism and the institutional far right. Starting with The Drudge Report in the 1990s, through Bush’s “war bloggers” in the early 2000s, to the massive troll armies funded by the Koch Brothers during the Obama administration, the far right has always had a massive presence online. Trying to hold a debate on the Internet can often seem a bit like wandering into a digital Klan rally. Just take a look at the comments section of you local newspaper someday. It’s actually gotten so bad in the local New Jersey media that the Star Ledger has decided to do away with comments altogether. On the other hand, from 2015 to 2020, the Sanders campaign has done something remarkable. They’ve provided the working class rank and file of the Democratic Party with a platform to express their discontent. While Sanders may not win the Democratic Party nomination, he has given voice to the millennial generation left out in the cold after the great recession of 2008, to traditional progressives like me who have watched the Democratic Party sell out to Wall Street and the military industrial complex our entire lives, to libertarian Republicans who are starting to realize that Donald Trump has no intention of draining the swamp in Washington.
Thus, the Democratic Party elite decided to weaponize discontent online, discontent with both establishment parties as well as with social media media in general, not against Donald Trump and the far right, a fight they know they’ll lose badly, but against the left. Accuse a conservative of being racist or sexist and he’ll laugh in your face. Accuse an earnest young leftist, however, and he’ll immediately wonder what he did wrong. Nobody on the left wants to be racist, sexist or antisemitic. Taking a page from the Israel Lobby, the Clinton Campaign mobilized the best instincts of the left against the left itself, making bad faith accusations that would lead to introspective apologies, which would immediately lead to more bad faith accusations. Eventually Sanders supporters would be left with two equally bad options. On one hand they could keep apologizing. On the other hand, they could take a page from the far right, tell their accusers to go fuck themselves, and quite unintentionally alienate potential allies from more vulnerable backgrounds, women, blacks, gays, immigrants, who would come to see “Bernie Bros” as no better than Trump supporters. Women, gays, African Americans and immigrants who supported Sanders as fervently as young, college educated white men could be conveniently ignored. Sanders spokespeople like Nina Turner and Briahna Joy Gray, both African American, could be demonized as “misfit black girls” similar to the way Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights like Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky have always been demonized as “self-hating Jews.”
Will it work? In the short run I think it’s failed. Bernie Sanders is now the front runner to be the Democratic candidate for President, and in the fall the Democratic Party elite will probably take a dive, move to throw the election to Donald Trump. In the long run, however, I think it’s important to remember that the working class doesn’t own the machine, that if social media opens the door to too much democracy the Silicon Valley elites will just shut it down. That’s why I think it’s important to rebuild the open source Internet of the 1990s and early 2000s, to get off of corporate social media and build our own platform.