This essay was originally published on January 15 2020 at Singal-Minded: you can subscribe here.
If you are not on Twitter, then you may be blissfully unaware of the extent to which online bullshit has melted the brains of many professional journalists and pundits and activists, and seems to be seriously influencing their views of the 2020 presidential race. The so-called Bernie Bro meme is a great example of this.
Bernie Bros are Bernie Sanders fans who spend way too much time on Twitter and annoyingly attack those who they deem to be opposed to, or not sufficiently supportive of, Sanders. Despite generally liking Sanders, I’ve had occasional run-ins. These people are really annoying. They just spend seemingly every waking hour online (and that’s me saying this!), they all repeat the same dumb jokes and memes, and the first time you annoy them it can feel like a zillion of them are all attacking you at the same time.
Except ‘attack’ isn’t the right word. Because really what they’re doing is tweeting at you. You have many options for ignoring their tweets. One thing you can do is individually block any Bernie Bro you come across — it takes two clicks. You can also turn on Twitter’s so-called Quality Filter, which, while a bit wonky (I find that it disappears tweets directed at me I would have liked to have seen), certainly filters out a lot of annoying noise.
Some women reported in 2016 that, after drawing the ire of Bernie Bros, they received death and rape threats, explicit images, and so forth. I am positive that this is true. There is a subset of online drama that inevitably attracts vicious trolls who are a bit sadistic. Suffice it to say I take death and rape threats extremely seriously; in fact, I think anyone who sends another human being one should get a visit from the police and, depending on the circumstances, possibly some jail time. One of the reasons Bernie-skeptics have been the target of this sort of thing is that the younger a given online community, and the higher its percentage of online obsessives, the more likely it is to attract this sort of troll. At least that’s been my experience, as a veteran of countless online blowups spanning the ideological spectrum.
But the average Bernie Bro is not threatening anyone with violence. He or she (usually he, but not always) is just annoying as hell and really should try to find a local park and go for a walk. These are harmless people — kids usually. But because of 1) the dumb logic of this age, in which nothing with the vague, general features of X can happen without being LITERALLY THE MOST X THING TO HAVE EVER HAPPENED; and 2) the fact that the Bernie Bro meme could be weaponized by Hillary Clinton supporters, the meme blew up a little bit, and many professional journalists and pundits now view the dumb crap a tiny subset of Sanders supporters tweet at people as A Serious Issue That Needs To Be Addressed.
A good example unfurled on my feed last week. As you may be aware, there is Liz-Bernie drama at the moment because of conflicting claims over whether or not, during a 2018 conversation, Sanders told her that a woman couldn’t win the presidency in 2020. She says he did, he says he didn’t. (For what it’s worth, I favor the explanation that he was speaking generally about Trump’s likely lines of attack in 2020, she interpreted that, not unreasonably, as a more specific claim about the likelihood of a female candidate prevailing, and that’s how we got where we are. At least I think that crossed-wires explanation is more likely than the alternative of one or the other of them lying in a rather brazen way.)
This has caused a great deal of anger among Sanders fans, particularly since last night’s debate — when I woke up this morning and went online, it appeared that there was widespread agreement among them that CNN had sought, in an unfairly anti-Sanders way, to stoke the flames of conflict.
This is clearly Sanders fans saying they believe Warren to have acted in an underhanded and dishonest way — like a snake. I disagree, but that’s what the emoji is clearly meant to communicate.
Except to other people, it is a sign of the dark evil heart of radical BernieBroism. Jodi Jacobson, a DC journalist and editor, responded to Robinson by telling him that the cartoon snakes are ‘disgusting’ and a sign of “rampant sexism and misogyny”:
Emily Crockett, another writer and editor and former Vox staffer, tweeted that “This is appallingly sexist, and Bernie needs to tell his supporters in no uncertain terms to knock it off.” She followed that up with a tweet arguing, “Whole lotta Totally Not Sexist galaxy-brains on here arguing that because snakes can have multiple symbolic meanings, it’s fine to deploy them in Gamergate-style swarms to insist a woman is lying about a pretty mild discussion of sexism she had once.”
GamerGate, of course, was a big online event that culminated in some people getting wave after horrifying wave of death and rape threats. In Crockett’s view, it is a “GamerGate-style swarm” — a swarm! — to tweet at a presidential candidate an image of a cartoon snake.
Again, if you are lucky enough to not be on social media, you probably are unaware of what a fixation this is. But these are just two examples of many. A bunch of people tweeted a snake at a presidential candidate during a primary because of a conflict between her and their favored candidate — such conflicts being par for the course during most primary campaigns — and now a bunch of professional journalists and editors and activists are treating it as a Major Misogyny Moment. (Also, it could just be me but I’ve always viewed the use of ‘snake’ in this sense as male-coded, from the Biblical serpent on.)
Don’t get me wrong: I definitely think Warren, like any female candidate, is sometimes treated unfairly on account of her sex. And Sanders fans likely, in some cases, judge her differently and too harshly as a result. I also think some Sanders fans conduct themselves in incredibly stupid and self-defeating ways online. There is a level of obsessiveness and pettiness and sheer lack of originality in the most hyperactive online leftist communities, this one included, that dwarfs anything I’ve ever seen on the right, to be honest. On a more substantive note, many Sanders fans are vastly overstating the differences between Sanders and Warren, policy-wise. The idea that she is a neoliberal corporate sellout shill is just… wrong! Or at least she is the first neoliberal corporate sellout shill I’ve ever encountered to have spent this much time on the subjects of bankruptcy and consumer rights.
But the point here is that Twitter is absolutely warping how people with platforms view the world. I’m finishing this post up at 11:00 a.m. or so, and a bunch of people with influential perches have spent the entire workday so far parsing the meaning of snake-emojis and pretending that a dumb online meme represents some sort of alarming threat to women’s equality. This is bizarre. It’s also tactically foolish. If “GamerGate-style swarm” includes both rape and death threats and, well, snake emojis(!), you can’t really complain if, down the line, people take online harassment — or misogyny — less seriously.
So enough with the Bernie Bros. There aren’t that many of them, and intermixed with true Sanders partisans are a bunch of online trolls just trying to start trouble. You are giving them what they want when you pretend they have any voice or power. Please can we not let this dumb, overhyped meme carve out a place in a second presidential election?
Jesse Singal is a contributing writer and former staffer at New York Magazine who is working on a book, to be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, about why half-baked behavioral-science ideas go viral. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal.