Russian Bots: A comforting delusion
As Bernie moves closer to the nomination, despairing centrists retreat into fantasies of international intrigue
Time is a flat circle. Every attack ever made against Bernie Sanders will be made over and over and over again. Forever. Case in point: Intelligence agencies informed Sen. Sanders a month ago that Russians were attempting to influence the election in his favor, according to a story released in the Washington Post last Friday. Of course, some of his opponents pounced on the opportunity to insinuate that the Sanders campaign was in cahoots with the Kremlin.
Driven by thousands of self-styled “Resistance” Twitter accounts, conspiratorial hashtags—#RussianInfluence, #BernieKnew, and #BernieIsARussianAgent—started trending. These accounts alleged that Sanders failed to disclose the findings because he wanted to conceal that he was getting Russian assistance. Many tried to credit Putin with Bernie’s surge in the polls as well as his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
This is, of course, bullshit. A fever dream. Bernie didn’t disclose what was in the confidential briefing because it was classified. End of story.
We have no idea what the Russians are up to, but one thing we can know for certain: Bernie’s runaway lead in the polls has nothing whatsoever to do with the them.
Russians tried to interfere in the election before. They may try again. But it’s important to remember—and I can’t stress this enough—that they are really, really bad at it.
A report by Yonder (at the time known as New Knowledge) found that election-related messaging only accounted for 11 percent of the content and 33 percent of the user engagement produced by the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency. Its global budget was $25 million, divided among multiple markets around the world. Only a small fraction was spent in the US during the campaign season.
Just 20 of the IRA’s Facebook groups—accounting for 0.003 percent of the site’s 6,000 total—got serious engagement, according to a study by the Oxford Computational Propaganda Research Project (COMPRO). The Yonder/New Knowledge report found that the most engagement they got from one single post—nearly a million views—was a meme of Yosemite Sam in front of a Confederate Flag with the caption “I WAS BANNED FROM TELEVISION FOR BEING TOO VIOLENT!”
They’re not sending their best, folks. These are amateurish, low-effort Turning Point USA-tier memes. Honestly, if our democracy can be killed by this garbage, it’s not long for this world anyhow.
No one in their right mind would honestly give any credence to the idea that such a rinky dink outfit operating on a shoe-string budget could be responsible for one iota of Bernie Sanders’ success.
The only reason why centrists think this is even remotely plausible is because they not only want to believe—they have to.
Americans love a good conspiracy theory. Why? Because it imposes a simple narrative onto the complex, often inscrutable forces acting upon us and the world around us. Paradoxically, conspiracy theories inevitably become increasingly more complicated and convoluted as the people engaging in them try to cram more and more round pegs into square holes
Conspiracy theories help folks make sense (nonsense?) of the world, but they also fulfill another deep psychological need by bridging the gap between falsehoods people are emotionally invested in and realities that they refuse to accept.
It’s not a perfect one-to-one comparison, but there are parallels between “Resistance” Twitter and the pro-Trump QAnon movement. The latter is arguably more dangerous and unhinged, but they’re both manifestations of the same pathology—albeit with different politics.
Both are rooted in an attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance.
What Trump’s base wants most is to see their enemies punished— ex. “Lock her up” —and he never really delivered on that front. They couldn’t handle that disappointment, so an anonymous 8chan poster known only as Q constructed this whole alternate reality where all the libs were getting their due.
Obama and “Crooked Hillary” have already been indicted secretly, according to Q. In true reality show style, Trump is just waiting for the right moment to make his big reveal. So QAnon followers are told to “Trust the plan.”
#Resistance Twitter is rooted in a different delusion. They could not conceive of any way that Hillary Clinton—the greatest, most qualified candidate who has ever lived—might have legitimately lost the election, so they ascribed her failure to some outside force. Furthermore, many of them personally identified with Clinton so much that they viewed a rejection of her as a rejection of themselves.
Both QAnon and the #Resistance display a deformed version of a normal trait in a democratic citizenry: faith in institutions. They’re both convinced that their “traitor” enemies will be laid low by the justice system, whether its impeachment hearings or top-secret tribunals.
Trump’s followers claim to represent the “real America,” the heartland. They define themselves in opposition to the corrupt coastal elites. Likewise, As centrists, members of the #Resistance see themselves not only in the center politically but also smack dab in the middle of the cultural, social and moral mainstream. In their minds, they’re the standard-bearers of “normal.”
They have a hard time grappling with the fact that two decades of political polarization has rendered them marginal while elevating those currents they deem deviant.
If one has such blinders on, Trump seems like an aberration, but his presidency is the end point of a clear trajectory. The #Resistance defaults to a sort of magical thinking because it’s easier than coming to terms with reality. Rather than treating the disease or even the symptoms, they blame the illness on some Russian witchcraft.
During and immediately after the election, the #Resistance refused to recognize that the resurgence of the far-right was both real and home-grown. Until the events in Charlottesville, there was a widespread assumption that the alt-right was predominantly, if not entirely, just a Russian psyop.
Russian bots didn’t march with torches. A Russian bot didn’t kill Heather Heyer. Russian bots aren’t shooting up Walmarts and synagogues. In fact, very little IRA content was hate speech.
Centrists’ concept of change amounts to Whig history, i.e. progress is a linear, inexorable march forward rather than a series of advances, reactions and retreats. A black president got elected. Then came marriage equality. The next logical step is woman president—not fascist game show host. Trump’s presidency doesn’t fit this progression, so it must have been brought about by some nefarious outside force.
It’s also fundamental to their self-image for them to believe that they are on the right side of history. This is simpler when it’s a dichotomy, and Trump is the wrong side. But the prospect of a third force in politics with a better claim to that role is a huge source of psychic distress, which explains the visceral reaction against Sanders.
They’re the good guys—the #Resistance—therefore whoever is against them must be the baddies. The Democratic establishment asserts the exclusive right to speak for the entire left half of the American political spectrum. Sanders is undermining the legitimate, officially sanctioned resistance just by being in the race regardless of whether he has is the best positioned to defeat Trump (He is).
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They’ve accepted the premise that “radical” and “realistic” are now and forever mutually exclusive. And if you’ve spent the last 20 years decrying “purity tests” and saying every election that now just isn’t the right time to rock the boat, then how are you to make sense of the fact that someone running on a platform full of ideas you dismiss as “pie-in-the-sky” is incredibly popular?
It can’t just be that you’re wrong.
No, it’s some kind of 4D chess move by Putin. He’s just setting Bernie up to fail. As soon as he gets nominated, the Republicans are going to release their ultimate oppo dump that they got from a top Russian hacker: Some fifth grade essay he wrote about how Stalin is cool or whatever.
It speaks volumes about how cynical #Resistance folks are that they can’t imagine millions of people might post about Bernie on Twitter non-stop because they’re genuinely excited about his candidacy. Why would anyone actually care enough to do that unless it were part of some huge intelligence operation?
It might come as a surprise to the #Resistance, but there are actual limits to what Russian intervention can achieve. Russians didn’t organize satellite caucuses in Iowa for Ethiopian meatpackers and Burmese refugees. Russians didn’t knock on half a million doors in Nevada. Russians aren’t controlling the Sunrise Movement, the National Nurses Union and the Center for Popular Democracy.
If you’re part of a tiny minority of Democratic loyalists whose brain has been broken by being chronically online, then you might be convinced that every Bernie Bro is really a Bernie Boris.
But given Sanders’ mammoth organization, by November, a huge chunk of the American populace will have the chance to meet a bonafide flesh-and-blood Bernie supporter.
#Resistance Twitter probably hasn’t because a.) they never log off and b.) they all live in gated communities.
The real irony of all this: The hysteria over Russian intervention is probably more effective at the presumed goal—sowing division and delegitimizing the center—than the dankest memes the Kremlin content farms might put out. Some white text on a red background that reads “You can’t hold hands with God when you’re masturbating” isn’t half as polarizing as a #Resistance Twitter account telling a Bernie supporter “Go suck Putin’s dick, BernieBot!”
If I were a Russian intelligence officer trying to destroy the Democratic center, I would consider it a huge win to transform thousands of rank-and-file Democrats into Glenn Beck:
I would also be overjoyed that major media figures on the largest liberal network were soiling themselves while feeding into this hysteria. After Bernie’s landslide victory in Nevada, James Carville said the big winner is Putin.
Hey, maybe he’s a “chaos agent?”
By accusing Bernie of being Putin’s cat’s paw, the #Resistance is only sabotaging itself. It makes it harder to sustain the narrative that they are the reasonable, pragmatic ones and the Sanders camp is a bunch of wild-eyed idealist fanatics. While Sanders & Co. are talking about dinner table issues that matter, the Resistance is gesticulating maniacally at a bunch of torn out pages from the Mueller Report pinned to a cork board like Claire Danes in Homeland.
But hey, #Resistance people, if you’re reading this, don’t let me talk you out of digging your own graves. Stay the course. Keep it up.
You’re doing great.