As the 2020 elections approach, vague news has been leaked about alleged Russian efforts to support Bernie Sanders. This news coincidentally came out in the wake of the newest revelations about ongoing Russian efforts to help Donald Trump get reelected. On a completely unrelated note, in 2016, just an hour after the Access Hollywood tape came out, Wikileaks began dumping the contents of John Podesta’s emails.
In addition to this news, there have been recurring discussions on social media and in the news media about seven words that appeared in the Mueller Report. In that report, the Special Counsel found that IRA employees were instructed to criticize Hillary Clinton and other politicians “(except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”
By further exploring the various data that has been released publicly regarding Russian active measures during and following the 2016 election, we can put those seven words in context. There are various lessons that can be learned in order to ensure that what transpired in 2016 does not occur again. Every single political campaign can glean valuable information from these active measures operations. This does not just pertain to Bernie Sanders campaign, as the tactics explored here are currently being deployed against various Democratic candidates.
In order to fully appreciate what will be covered here, readers first must let go of partisanship, if but for a moment. Contemplating this from a moderate perspective, a more progressive perspective, or a more conservative perspective will only serve to blind readers from seeing the full scope. Analyzing the data while trying to find excerpts to cherry-pick just for the benefit of your preferred candidate will only make the problem worse. This applies to Bernie Sanders supporters and supporters of any other candidate. Democracy is under attack across the full spectrum of society. Dividing those who would prevent Trump from attaining a second term is one of the primary objectives of these ongoing attacks.
In the Mueller Report, there are several redactions which surround the aforementioned instructions, thus obscuring some of the context. But since then, more of that context has become public.
In October 2019, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published Volume II on Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In this volume, the committee revealed some of the tactics that Russia used on social media. They called in numerous experts to testify on these matters and that testimony appears in the report, alongside the data that had been uncovered prior to publication. Bear in mind that since publication, additional Russian (and Iranian) social media operations have been uncovered.
Within Volume II, the committee revealed far more of the context surrounding those instructions. They also revealed the purpose of those instructions and how they fit into the overarching strategy of harming the Democratic candidate (Hillary Clinton) to help Donald Trump. Below is the full paragraph from Volume II.
Those seven words are included in that paragraph to illustrate the point made in the introductory sentence of the paragraph. The other 85 pages of the report further contextualize the methods and tactics that were deployed by these accounts. Ostensibly ‘supporting’ Sanders was merely Step 1 of that portion of the influence operation. The goal in 2016 was to harm Trump’s likely opponent (Clinton) to help Trump. Squeezing Trump’s likely opponent from multiple directions was the strategy. As we’re seeing in the run-up to the 2020 elections, it doesn’t particularly matter whom that opponent might be. Clinton is not running and they are still using similar tactics to achieve the same objective.
Likewise, Clinton’s primary competitor was not important. Whether it happened to have been Bernie, Biden, Warren, or any other possible competitor, the individual was not important. The aim was to discourage potential voters who could prevent Trump from attaining office. As such, they targeted potential voters who were more likely to vote for Trump’s opponent. They targeted Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims, Bernie supporters, Jill Stein supporters, and various other people. Worth noting, Jill Stein is not a candidate in 2020, but they will continue to encourage Green Party voting, regardless of her absence. They don’t encourage it because they support the Green Party. One of Russia’s primary resources is oil, so their interest on that topic is in opposition to the Green Party’s interest. They merely encourage Green Party voting to siphon votes away from the main opponent to Trump.
These groups all have one thing in common: they are more likely to vote against Trump. Does anyone really believe that the IRA supported Muslims when they pretended to be them and encouraged them to stay home or vote third party? Before any reader says yes to that, just know that the IRA also spread Islamophobic messages in 2016. They clearly have no issue with pretending to be people whom they villify.
Volume II of the committee’s report also details an example of how the IRA pretended to be a black Bernie supporter at first but then took additional steps later. This example illustrates how pretending to support Hillary’s main competition wasn’t the end goal, it was merely a means to the desired end. In this case, they targeted supporters of Clinton’s previous opponent in hopes of influencing them to vote for Trump.
Via cherry-picking and amplifying of derogatory information about Trump’s opponent, while pretending to promote an alternative candidate, they sought to disenfranchise two potential demographics at once, namely black voters and Bernie supporters. For one former follower, none of that was a red flag. It was only the pro-Trump turn which set off alarm bells. Other users may have continued following the account, despite that turn. But even if every single follower decided to unfollow at that point, the messaging which discouraged voting for Trump’s opponent still sunk in. That’s still a ‘win.’ Even if they didn’t achieve a second ‘win’ by converting some of the targeted audience into Trump voters, it was a ‘win’ if any decided not to vote in the general election based on the repetitive derogatory Clinton posts that were amplified on social media.
Volume II and other evidence reveals that the IRA used different packaging to target various groups. Just as you might not buy a soft drink that had pictures of used bandages incorporated into the label, that follower stopped buying in when the account turned pro-Trump. Accounts that are packaged as supporters of certain candidates are more likely to appeal to supporters of those candidates. The IRA pays attention to current events and currently popular politicians to come up with appealing packaging to push their divisive messaging. If every single Democratic candidate in the 2020 primaries were swapped with completely different candidates, the IRA would just pose as supporters of those new candidates while pushing the same tailored divisive messages. They’d still work to depress votes for Trump’s potential opposition.
To better contextualize the kind of “support” that the Kremlin has provided Bernie Sanders, it seems prudent to review the available data on their previous activities. Renee DiResta put together a Twitter thread on the 2015/2016 operations as I was writing up this article. Below are a couple excerpts from that thread, but I’d encourage readers to review the thread in its entirety.
The Born Liberal account was created six days before Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination. This was too late to be of any help to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, as it takes some time for an account to amass real followers. In contrast, many of the accounts which boosted Trump were created much earlier, some as far back as 2015.
Russian-Linked Twitter Accounts
Twitter has released data sets on various state-backed influence operations that have been uncovered since 2016. Among those releases was a substantial file on Russian-linked accounts that operated through 2018. By reviewing the political content they posted, we can observe the work they’ve undertaken in advance of the 2020 elections. I’ve narrowed this review to mentions of Bernie Sanders. If they are indeed seeking to support Bernie Sanders, the evidence should appear in those tweets.
Upon further review, the content can be generally placed into two categories. I’ve collected samples of each category to illustrate the specific kinds of content they created or promoted. Within the first category, I’ve further grouped the content into sub-categories. All material was captured as a screenshot of the CSV file entry, but on occasion, the tweet that these accounts boosted will be referenced.
Category 1: Anti-Sanders Content
Message Theme: Bernie Sanders is a seditious anti-American who promotes Sharia Law.
Message Theme: Bernie and his wife committed bank fraud. Also, Biden and Bernie are pedophiles.
Message Theme: Bernie is a hypocritical millionaire who has sold out. As a matter of fact, Bernie is just like Hillary Clinton.
Message Theme: Bernie Sanders is an ignorant socialist who doesn’t understand economics and is selling a fantasy.
This last grouping is rather miscellaneous and even includes a QAnon mention from “Canada4Bernie.” Note that the account currently named “Canada4Bernie” in February 2020 is not the same as the one below. The operator for the “Canada4Bernie” account mentioned below has switched handles since that post and some other operator has taken the handle since then.
As seen in some of the tweets above and others within the data set, there were numerous occasions where these Russian-linked accounts spread content that opposed multiple Democratic politicians at once and not just Bernie. While this write-up is focused on Bernie Sanders due to recent allegations of Russian assistance, it would be unwise to disregard their targeting of numerous Democratic politicians and how this plays into the overarching strategy.
Category 2: Pro-Sanders Content?
Some of the tweets that Twitter captured have been truncated during the process. In the case of that last tweet, this obscured meaningful information regarding precisely whom Hillary was also allegedly trying to rig the election against. Fortunately, the tweet being retweeted there still exists.
This tweet they promoted reveals one of the purposes of claiming the 2016 primary was rigged against Bernie Sanders. Once this narrative had been established, it was used to suggest that Hillary Clinton may have rigged the 2016 elections against Trump. In the retweet listed just before this one, this general narrative was used to push the idea that the Dems may have rigged it against Roy Moore. It was also used to make allegations about Elizabeth Warren.
Once a talking point is generated, it can become a multi-pronged weapon to generate further allegations, insinuations and even outright disinformation. And, as Donna Brazile’s November 2, 2017 article makes clear, this disputed article was in response to the material that the Russian GRU hacked from the DNC. Those Russian-linked accounts began boosting and reframing that narrative the same day. Donald Trump also jumped on it and the Russian-linked accounts also boosted his tweets.
Not only did the Russian-linked accounts boost Trump’s tweets on the 2nd and 3rd of November, but one such account retrieved Trump’s May 18, 2016 tweet about the system being rigged against Bernie and retweeted it on November 3, 2017. Notably, that 2016 Trump tweet was posted two months prior to the dump of the hacked DNC emails. This is a type of narrative that Trump has been pushing for quite some time. As a matter of fact, he pushed it in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and he pushed it just this month.
Just look at the words he and the Russian-linked accounts have been reinforcing. Words like: rigged, theft, stolen, and robbed. Recall that in 2016, the Internet Research Agency and the GRU sought to convince potential voters to stay home or vote third party. The GRU hacked the DNC. Then the IRA’s social media accounts pushed disinformation about that hacked material while working to depress voter turnout for Clinton, for the benefit of Donald Trump.
This portion of the Kremlin’s active measures operation did not end after the 2016 elections. Donald Trump is pushing the same messaging, not to help Bernie, but to help himself by discouraging potential voters from showing up to vote for the Democratic nominee. In combination with other ongoing active measures operations, these efforts are working to ensure that no matter who becomes the Dem nominee, just enough people decide to stay home or vote third party so that Trump wins. Sometimes, the Russian-linked accounts make it quite plain, like when they boosted this Bill Mitchell tweet.
Rinse and repeat for 2020. If Bernie Sanders was not running, they’d still be doing the same. They’d just swap out the name. All their other ops are not contingent upon the specific name of any particular person. These ops can be tweaked to fit any name, as the name doesn’t matter. All that matters is the message.