On 25 April 2016, a number of popular Bernie Sanders Facebook groups purportedly became inaccessible, all at the same time. The pages were evidently removed because they were being inundated with spam that consisted of explicitly pornographic photographs. According to stories that immediately began to circulate, the spam came as part of a coordinated attack from Hillary Clinton supporters.

Not long after rumors about the groups’ removals swept Facebook, a Reddit user started a thread on the r/sandersforpresident subreddit (a hub for Sanders campaign social media organizing):

UPDATE – now SIX of the largest Bernie groups have disappeared from Facebook within the last 15min’s! I’ve given the link to this Reddit as a way to stay in touch for people who had never been on or heard of Reddit.

Edit to add – they have now also removed Bernie Sanders for President 2016 (118k members) and Bernie Sanders 2016 – Ideas Welcome. Both are now gone. Along with Bernie Sanders Activists, Bernie Believers and Bernie Sanders is my HERO.

A moderator commented with a list of some of the groups affected:

› Bernie Believers
› Bernie Sanders is My Hero
› Bernie Sanders Discussion Group
› Bernie Sanders Activists
› Bernie Sanders 2016 – Ideas Welcome
› Bernie Sanders for President 2016
› Bernie Sanders or Bust

The claims coincided with an article from the New York Daily News, in which writer Shaun King reported that a Clinton supporter was behind social media astroturfing efforts on behalf of a pro-Clinton super PAC:

As head of the Correct The Record Super PAC for Hillary Clinton, David Brock has launched something called Barrier Breakers — an online mob of paid trolls designed to attack any and every person who says one cross word about Hillary Clinton on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, or elsewhere.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory. They openly spin their strategy on the Correct The Record website and state that they are putting over $1 million behind their efforts.

As you likely know, Super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited money on these types of efforts.

King pointed to a Paste article published on 22 April 2016 about Brock’s purported astroturfing efforts on social media:

Using a tactic called “astro-turfing,” Clinton surrogates like Brock have attempted to advance the concept of the “Bernie Bro,” and to promote the idea that Sanders supporters are little more than a sexist cult. The moderator of the thriving Bernie Sanders for President Reddit page, preparing for an onslaught, recently outlined one common form these attacks take:

1. Create fake accounts

2. Establish that they are Bernie supporters by making them tweet about Bernie

3. Harass journalists and influencers in their @ mentions

4. Have other elites/influencers quote tweet these fake accounts and say they are hurting Bernie’s brand

5. Pitch a story to The Atlantic about the phenomenon of “Bernie Bros”

6.Establish a narrative that Bernie’s supporters are all racist, sexist young males who harass people online.

7. Make it more difficult for Sanders to expand his coalition by tainting the view of said coalition for women, people of color, and anyone who just doesn’t like online harassment/bullying.

Yesterday, Correct the Record announced they’d be taking it a step further. A new initiative called “Barrier Breakers 2016” will use $1 million (for now) to “help Clinton supporters push back on online harassment and thank superdelegates.”

The page to which Paste linked was undated, but the site pegged Correct the Record’s genesis to 21 April 2016, when it announced plans for a “digital task force”:

In response to these attacks on supporters and superdelegates, Correct The Record is launching the Barrier Breakers 2016 digital task force. While Hillary Clinton fights to break down barriers and bring America together, the Barrier Breakers 2016 digital task force will serve as a resource for supporters looking for positive content and push-back to share with their online progressive communities, as well as thanking prominent supporters and committed superdelegates on social media.

Correct The Record will invest more than $1 million into Barrier Breakers 2016 activities, including the more than tripling of its digital operation to engage in online messaging both for Secretary Clinton and to push back against attackers on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram. Barrier Breakers 2016 is a project of Correct The Record and the brainchild of David Brock, and the task force will be overseen by President of Correct The Record Brad Woodhouse and Digital Director Benjamin Fischbein. The task force staff’s backgrounds are as diverse as the community they will be engaging with and include former reporters, bloggers, public affairs specialists, designers, Ready for Hillary alumni, and Hillary super fans who have led groups similar to those with which the task force will organize.

Lessons learned from online engagement with “Bernie Bros” during the Democratic Primary will be applied to the rest of the primary season and general election–responding quickly and forcefully to negative attacks and false narratives. Additionally, as the general election approaches, the task force will begin to push out information to Sanders supporters online, encouraging them to support Hillary Clinton.

A now-deleted post published to r/sandersforpresident (and reproduced to r/conspiracy) was submitted by an individual who claimed to be a former astroturfer for Clinton operatives. That individual claimed that they were instructed to paint Sanders supporters as racist, sexist, and bullies:

Good afternoon. As of today, I am officially a former “digital media specialist” (a nice way to say “paid Internet troll”) previously employed by Hillary Clinton’s campaign (through a PR firm). I’m posting here today as a confession of sorts because I can no longer continue to participate in something that has become morally-indigestible for me. (This is a one-time throwaway account, but I’ll stick around for this thread.)

First, my background. I am [redacted] … and first became involved in politics during the 2008 presidential race. I worked as a volunteer for Hillary during the Democratic primary and then for the Democratic Party in the general election. I was not heavily involved in the 2012 election cycle (employment issues – volunteering doesn’t pay the rent), and I wasn’t really planning on getting involved in this cycle until I was contacted by a friend from college around six months ago about working on Hillary’s campaign … I don’t want to get bogged down on this subject, but I was involved with PPP (pay per post) on forums and in the comments section of (mostly-liberal) news and blog sites. Spending my time on weekends and evenings, I brought in roughly an extra $100 or so a week, which was a nice cushion for me.

At first, the work was fun and mostly unsupervised. I posted mostly positive things about Hillary and didn’t engage in much negativity. Around the middle of July, however, I received notification that the team would be focusing not on pro-Hillary forum management, but on “mitigation” (the term our team leader used) for a Vermont senator named Bernie Sanders. I’d been out of college for several years and hadn’t heard much about Sanders, and so I decided to do some research to get a feel for him.

The real problem for me started around the end of September and the beginning of October, when there was a change of direction from the team leader again. Apparently, the higher-ups in the firm caught wind of an impending spending splurge by the Clinton campaign that month and wanted to put up an impressive display. We received very specific instructions about how and what to post, and I was aghast at what I saw. It was a complete change in tone and approach, and it was extremely nasty in character. We changed from advocates to hatchet men, and it left a very bad taste in my mouth.

However, moderators for r/sandersforpresident removed the post, because its original author failed or refused to provide any proof of their accusations.

Screenshots that seekingly originated with a Facebook page called Bros4Hillary appear to show that the removal of pro-Sanders pages was due to the efforts of at least one person:

bernie-sanders-reported-e1461644955100

 

The Bros4Hillary Facebook group went private shortly after screenshots began to circulate:

bernie-conversation-names-not-shown2

 

Bros4Hillary’s political director told Heavy.comthat the group was not responsible overall:

“Bros4Hillary was created as a way to provide a positive and supportive community for supporters of Hillary Clinton to gather, and as a direct response to the hateful and divisive rhetoric used by other campaigns during this election cycle,” he said. “We have not and do not approve of or condone harmful or offensive rhetoric or harassing behavior targeting supporters of any other candidate in the race…”

He then addressed specifically what happened on Monday.

“Last night, a former member … decided to engage in harassing behavior toward Facebook groups of Bernie Sanders and posted about it in the B4H Facebook group,” he said. “…This was not promoted or supported by the leadership of B4H… We removed the offending posts and member as soon as possible.”

All groups were reported functional as of 25 April 2016:

As of 23:55 ET all groups pages affected appear to be back up and running. Thank you all for your concern and reporting on the situation. Let’s go onwards and focus on getting more victories!

On 26 April 2016, digital and social media manager for the Sanders campaign Aiden King addressed the rumors on the campaign’s official Slack channel:

All of the groups are back up and it wasn’t just Bernie groups.

Facebook hasn’t released a public statement but they had a bug and it closed a ton of facebook groups. Our supporters are just more vocal so the internet blew up with “Bernie groups being shut down” rather than “Facebook groups are being shut down.”

King claimed a number of groups were affected by a Facebook glitch, not just pro-Sanders groups. However, Facebook didn’t address the bug officially, leading many to believe the outages were politically motivated and not related to malfunctioning technology. Facebook hasn’t confirmed King’s assertion, nor did he disclose how he learned of the purported bug.

Sources:

Bragman, Walker and Shane Ryan.   “Clinton’s Internet Supporters, Allegedly Using Pornography, Shut Down Bernie Sanders’ Largest Facebook Groups In Coordinated Attack.”
Paste Magazine.   26 April 2016.

Girard, Amanda.   “Hillary Clinton Trolls Shut Down Pro-Bernie Sanders Facebook Groups.”
U.S. Uncut.   26 April 2016.

King, Shaun.   “Hillary Clinton Camp Now Paying Online Trolls To Attack Anyone Who Disparages Her Online.”
New York Daily News.   25 April 2016.

Ryan, Shane.   “Hillary Clinton’s Super PAC, Taking A Page from Vladimir Putin, Spends $1 Million On Online Trolls.”
Paste Magazine.   22 April 2016.

Stirland, Sarah Lai.   “Clinton Staff And Volunteers Busted For Astroturfing.”
Wired.   13 December 2007.

Correct The Record.   “Barrier Breakers 2016: A Project Of Correct The Record.”
21 April 2016.