Call it an ad hoc anthropologic exercise. One minute you’re busily going through your daily routine, getting the kids breakfast, making sure they’re not setting fire to the furniture, the next you’re delving into the world of the Bernie Sanders Revolution on Facebook.
In early January, CSPAN posted a seemingly innocuous question on their Facebook page: “Democrats only: Who do you think will win the Iowa Caucuses next month?”
My response was simple: “Hillary Clinton. By a small margin.”
The attacks were swift and brutal. Within seconds I was labeled an unintelligent, corporate puppet, a sheep, a shill, and a host of other names I hadn’t been called since high school. Someone stated, “Funny, he doesn’t look retarded.”
I was floored.
I didn’t even say I wanted her to win, I just suggested she would. What the hell did I do wrong?
A Hive Mind and Swarm Intelligence
I soon learned that my experience wasn’t unique. Scrolling down, I witnessed other commentators being berated and humiliated in the same way. The Bernie supporters crowded the comment section with hashtags and long blocks of text, aggressively asserting the purity of their candidate over his opponent. They quickly dominated the conversation, leaving little room for anyone else.
I spent the next two months studying the habits of what some have called the “BernieBots,” and discovered that they behave like a hive of bees, often swarming their enemies in an array of familiar and predictable attacks, while protecting their queen; or in this case, their king. They move through Facebook as a mass, jumping from one post to the next, filling the comment sections with unsolicited rhetoric and ideology. It is impossible to ignore their buzz on the Internet.
The hive mind and swarm intelligence are not new ideas. Both were conceptualized as a way to describe the behavior of artificial and natural systems that work independently under a collective idea or common goal. In this case, the goal of the hive is to elect Bernie Sanders into the presidency and usher in a political revolution. The system is both artificial and natural. Its members are real people operating within the cybernetic online environment. Though the Sanders campaign has no formal association with the hive, it is at the center of its unorganized structure, and informally coordinates with its online presence when the need arises.
Membership in the hive isn’t limited to any specific category of age or gender. Though the notion prior to my investigation leaned in the direction of a predominately male makeup, I found all ages and genders represented in the collective. Economic and social class were impossible to determine. There is though, a lack of diversity reflective of the voting results in the democratic primary so far.
There are inconsistent degrees of participation. Some members of the hive will post sporadically, while others have made it their full time job. I was able to identify at least a core group of serial posters that made it a point to post duplicate comments on every political Facebook article from every major news outlet, newspaper, and cable news channel.
The Sanders swarm spams political news outlets with a mixture of facts and misinformation that they spread freely and without nuance. Online, they are running a separate campaign from Sanders that has little to do with his policies and everything to do with destroying the reputation and legacy of the collective’s favorite target: Hillary Clinton.
The hive can operate anywhere on Facebook, though it is worth noting that it has made a concerted effort to infiltrate posts made by the Clinton campaign and her supporters. Collective members instinctively take over the comment section of any post mentioning the Clinton name. This includes her husband and daughter.
The attacks vary by degree depending on the commentator. Some posters are content to use simple sexist remarks about Clinton’s appearance. “Hag” and “witch” are particularly popular. Others reorder Clinton’s name into derogatory terms like Shillary and HilLIARy. Hashtags are often created to attack Clinton personally (see #NotMyAbuela and #WhichHillary), but the hive also manipulates hashtags used by the Clinton campaign as a way of deriding her supporters (see #HillNo or #NotWithHer).
Another tactic used by the hive is to take a particular part of the news cycle and use it as an endless line of assault before an election. This first occurred just before the New Hampshire primary when Madeline Albright made the infamous, “Special place in hell . . .” comment. Sanders supporters also attempted to erode Clinton’s support among African-Americans by using the hashtag #IAmNotASuperPredator shortly before the South Carolina primary. Most recently, Clinton’s misguided comments about AIDS and the Reagan legacy are trending on Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #HistoryByHillary.
Clinton’s history and record are under intense criticism by the hive. Her support of Henry Kissinger in a debate prompted a flurry of commentary, while the revelation of Sanders’ praise for Fidel Castro has gone largely unexamined. Members of the collective also blasted Clinton for being a “Goldwater Girl,” in her teens, but have defended an essay written by Sanders in 1972 that suggested women fantasize about being “raped by 3 men simultaneously.” This effort to relitigate the past is not merely limited to Clinton as an individual. She is also being held responsible for her husband’s policies and behavior while he held office in the 90s.
The hive acts aggressively when provoked by outsiders. Over the course of my two month investigation, I experimented with a variety of comments critical of Sanders and his policies. Unfavorable commentary towards Sanders or favorable conclusions about Clinton more or less produced the same response. Members of the hive attacked my intellect as subpar and below their standards. Followers of the movement often labelled me a millionaire or a paid employee of the Clinton campaign. I am neither.
If I remained passive the attacks became more brutal. Over time, I learned that the only way to defend myself was by meeting my aggressors with an equal measure of hostility. Any attempt at rational debate or discussion with the hive fell into a barrage of more insults, because the hive’s goal is to advance their agenda, not engage in discourse. There is a definite, “you’re either with us or against us,” mentality that is intolerant of opposing views. When faced with evidence that contradicts their assertions, they become dismissive and defensive.
Members frequently reminded me that it didn’t matter whether or not the attacks against Clinton were fair, or that Sanders’ policies had little chance of passing in Congress. All that mattered they stated, was the goal of a political revolution. One young man even quoted Machiavelli by simply writing back, “The end justifies the means . . .”
Insults and derogatory comments aren’t reserved to common individuals. Other enemies of the hive include groups and political figures that don’t implicitly subscribe to the collective’s agenda. Elizabeth Warren, a known sympathizer of Bernie Sanders’ cause, recently found herself besieged by Sanders supporters for refusing to endorse a candidate. The Human Rights Campaign currently has a 1.4 star rating on its Facebook page due to an influx of negative reviews from Sanders supporters angry at the activist group’s endorsement of Clinton.
Conspiracy theories are common. Any establishment organization critical of Sanders is assumed to be a financial contributor to the Clinton campaign. The DNC and Debbie Wasserman Schultz are said to have made Clinton the inevitable nominee. For proof, the hive points to debate schedules that were supposedly designed to limit voters’ exposure to Sanders. A petition calling for Wasserman Shultz’s resignation currently has over 57,000 signatures.
Under the collective’s consciousness the media is entirely delegitimized. Should a news outlet post an article critical of Sanders, a common reply is to simply state that, “Your bias is showing.” The hive also believes there is an intentional operation being orchestrated by the media to ignore Bernie Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton. Other conspiracy theories include polling alterations, voting inconsistencies and Clinton campaign operatives supposedly suppressing the vote and stealing elections.
When Bill Clinton showed up to a polling location during the Massachusetts primary, Sanders supporters immediately began posting objections online. A petition to have Bill Clinton arrested and charged for this supposed crime currently has over 100,000 signatures. Similar protestations have occurred in the close contests of Iowa and Nevada.
This very unscientific experiment is designed to expose the new culture of division being created in the political environment of 2016. Though critical, the intention of this piece is to acknowledge the movement’s impact on the social media environment which has become its own dimension in contemporary politics. Similar patterns can be seen in the habits of Donald Trump supporters, though a more thorough investigation would need to be done to confirm the theory that they share the same characteristics.
I’ll leave it to history and others to pass judgment on this experiment’s legitimacy or its importance. Anyone can test or verify my conclusions by simply spending an hour on Clinton’s Facebook page or the Facebook page of any news media source covering Clinton.
The questions that remain concern the future. What happens to the Bernie Sanders hive should he lose the nomination? A large number of members have already committed to a #BernieOrBust movement, pledging to never vote for Clinton. Their alternative they say, is to write-in Bernie Sanders or vote for the Green Party candidate instead.
If Sanders wins, it is assumed that collective members will move its swarm to the Republican nominee. In perhaps a preview of things to come, violence erupted this weekend during a Trump rally. Though disputed by the Sanders campaign, it does appear that the Sanders hive played a critical role in organizing the protest that shut down the rally. In a short video posted to YouTube, protesters can be heard chanting, “Ber-nie, Ber-nie, Ber-nie.” Members of the collective are also taking credit for the results, and some Sanders campaign operatives are encouraging their supporters not to attend future rallies.
Whatever happens, it is doubtful that the hive will simply disperse and move on before or after November’s election. Many members are too invested to go quietly into obscurity. My opinion is that we ignore them at our own peril. What we risk is creating another generation of apathetic voters angry at the establishment and frustrated by the process. Instead, we need to find a way to engage them that breaks through their stubborn attitudes and welcomes them in so we can all work together.
Sadly, the only thing that may satisfy the hive is getting their way.