Bernie Sanders supporters get a bad reputation online

  • 28 January 2016
Bernie Sanders at a recent campaign event Image copyright Getty Images

Passionate support for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has propelled him into a close race with fellow Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. But some say that support has turned aggressive and abusive online.

After the 25 January Democratic town hall, Emily Nussbaum, television critic for the New Yorker magazine, tweeted some positive feedback for Hillary Clinton.

"I'm into Hillary, obviously, but I genuinely thought she did really well tonight," Ms Nussbaum wrote.

About a half an hour later, she followed up with this: "Man, the Feel The Bern crew (as opposed to Bern himself) is such a drag. Say anything pro-Hil & they yell 'bitch' & 'psycho.' V idealistic!"

Others - including a number of prominent members of the media - followed with their own reports of seeing Sanders supporters deploying vicious rhetoric towards anyone questioning the Vermont senator or his backers.

Author Sady Doyle said her tweets about Sanders supporters resulted in "several hundred angry notifications in a 24-hour span from that cohort," she wrote. "Someone also said *I* should die if I thought some Bernie supporters were kinda sexist."

Some say Sanders is the symptom, not the cause - the "Bernie bro" is just an old troll with a new name. Indeed, Sarah Jeong, a journalist who is the frequent target of sexist attacks, has received so much vitriol in the name of Sanders she set her Twitter account to private - even though she too is a Sanders fan.

Kathleen Geier, a freelance contributor to The Nation and herself a Sanders supporter, says while she has gotten her fair share of ugly online comments from male Clinton supporters, the level of vitriol coming from what she calls a "tiny minority" of Sanders boosters troubles her.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sanders has large appeal with web-savvy millenials

"I think they're doing harm to the cause," she says. "I haven't seen people treat Obama supporters like this, or supporters of other male establishment candidates - just Hillary. So it's definitely misogyny."

Sexism is not the only bad behaviour demonstrated online by Sanders supporters - an ugly racial element has arisen, too.

"I've gotten everything from 'shill', 'paid infiltrator', to flat out having somebody actually call me a N***** in the midst of this," says Elon James White, CEO of This Week in Blackness, who has been critical of Mr Sanders' record on race.

"They harass and try to take away the credibility from the people who question Mr Sanders."

Similarly, after Atlantic author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a story criticising Mr Sanders for saying that reparations for African Americans is too "divisive" an issue, he was deluged by negative responses, as was editor and author Jamil Smith of The New Republic, for his own critical piece about Mr Sanders and his trouble appealing to minority voters.

Image copyright @JamilSmith via Twitter

"Your credibility gone, you'll forever be known as a #Clintonista/just another Village Idiot," wrote one critic to Mr Coates.

Tim Russo, a masters of international relations student at Cleveland State University, is an ardent Sanders supporter and has sent plenty of tweets to authors like Mr Coates and Joan Walsh, The Nation correspondent and Clinton supporter.

After Walsh tweeted, "I'm tired of seeing entitled men treat the world's most admired woman like she's applying to be his secretary," Russo responded. "I'm tired of @HillaryClinton channelling resentment to run as the female. What if Barack did that as a black man?"

He says the tone of tweets like his are confrontational and meant to be - this is a "revolution", he reasons, and he is trying to challenge establishment Democrats.

"I target these talking heads in the media who have a high perch, these great liberal thought leaders, when they're not - they're tools of bourgeois," says Russo.

He says he writes with more nuance on his blog, but those posts gets less attention.

"It's too hard to click on a link. Twitter is where it's at right now. That's where the fight is."

But for Elon James White, the revolution that Sanders promises looks an awful lot like the status quo for those who care about issues that fall outside of Sanders' main theme of economic reform.

"Communities of colour who actually make up the majority of the supposed coalition, they are normally told to put their issues aside. 'If you just wait, racism will stop as soon as we deal with economic issues,'" he says. "Well, Sandra Bland had a job."

The night of the 25 January town hall, even representatives for the Sanders campaign felt compelled to address what was happening online between Clinton and Sanders boosters.

"If you support @berniesanders, please follow the senator's lead and be respectful when people disagree with you," wrote Sanders press secretary Mike Casca on Twitter.

A Sanders communication director in New Hampshire chimed in as well: "Let's all #FeelTheBern respectfully -- no place for misogyny or vitriol."

Asked to elaborate on the campaign's response, BBC News received this statement: "Sen Sanders is committed to running a positive campaign on the issues and we encourage all of his supporters to stick to that message."

Blog by Jessica Lussenhop

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