Thousands of Russian Twitter accounts turned their misinformation focus to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 after he lost the Democratic Primary to Hillary Clinton.

After Sanders lost his presidential primary race against Clinton, a Twitter account called Red Louisiana News reached out to his supporters to help sway the general election.

“Conscious Bernie Sanders supporters already moving towards the best candidate Trump! #Feel the Bern #Vote Trump 2016,” the account tweeted.

The tweet was not actually from Louisiana, according to an analysis by Clemson University researchers.

Instead, it was one of thousands of accounts identified as based in Russia, part of a cloaked effort to persuade supporters of the senator from Vermont to elect Trump.

“Bernie Sanders says his message resonates with Republicans,” said another Russian tweet.

While much attention has focused on the question of whether the Trump campaign encouraged or conspired with Russia, the effort to target Sanders supporters has been a lesser-noted part of the story.

Special counsel Robert Mueller, in a case filed last year against 13 Russians accused of interfering in the U.S. presidential campaign, said workers at a St. Petersburg facility called the Internet Research Agency were instructed to write social media posts in opposition to Clinton but “to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”

That strategy could receive new attention with the release of Mueller’s report, expected within days.

Sanders told Vermont Public Radio last year that one of his campaign workers figured out what was going on, alerted Clinton campaign officials and told them, “I think these guys are Russians.”

But Sanders said he never knew, and he later backed off his suggestion that his staff did.

Only recently, with the latest analysis of Twitter data, has the extent of the Russian disinformation campaign been documented on that social media platform.

A pair of Clemson University researchers examined English-language tweets identified as coming from Russia, many of which were designed to influence the election.

It is impossible to say how many were targeted at Sanders supporters because many don’t include his name.

Some 9,000 of the Russian tweets used the word “Bernie,” and those were “liked” 59,281 times and retweeted 61,804 times.

But that was only one element of the Russian effort to target Sanders supporters, the researchers said.

Many thousands of other tweets, with no direct reference to Sanders, were also designed to appeal to his backers, urging them to do anything but vote for Clinton in the general election.

“I think there is no question that Sanders was central to their strategy. He was clearly used as a mechanism to decrease voter turnout for Hillary Clinton,” said one of the Clemson researchers, Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communications. The tweets examined in the new analysis “give us a much clearer understanding of the tactics they were using. It was certainly a higher volume than people thought.”

The Russian social media strategy underscores a challenge that Sanders faces as he once again seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, this time in a crowded field.

Many Sanders supporters believe he was treated unfairly by the Democratic Party and Clinton, a point the Russians sought to capitalize on as they worked to undermine Clinton in the November 2016 election.

Although Sanders later denounced the Kremlin’s efforts and campaigned for Clinton, some Democrats believe he could have done more to smooth over tensions and encourage his supporters to support his onetime opponent.

Sanders said in May 2016 that party rules enabling Clinton to collect “superdelegates” did not meet the definition of “rigged,” but he called it a “dumb process which has certainly disadvantaged our campaign.”

Russia’s effort to promote Sanders as a way to influence the U.S. election began shortly after he declared his candidacy in the spring of 2015, according to Mueller’s indictment of the 13 Russians.

The aim was to defeat or weaken Clinton, who had angered Russian President Vladimir Putin when she was secretary of state.

One reason that Sanders was on Russia’s radar has been little noted: He, like Trump, opposed trade deals such as the Trans-Pac­ific Partnership. Putin had been critical of the TPP, saying it was secretive and “hardly facilitates sustainable development of Asia Pacific.”

The Twitter database shows the impact.

The tweets sent from Russia, cloaked to look as though they came from Americans, included: “Bernie Sanders looks to black voters to boost his underdog campaign”; “Hillary Clinton’s summer of drama creates openings for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden”; and “I’m for Bernie all the way!”

Then, in July 2016, WikiLeaks released emails from the Democratic National Committee that suggested the party machinery was tilted against Sanders.

The DNC computers were later revealed to have been hacked by Russia.

The hack prompted Trump to stoke the divide among Democrats.

“Leaked e-mails of DNC show plans to destroy Bernie Sanders,” Trump tweeted July 23, 2016. “ . . . On-line from Wikileakes [sic], really vicious. RIGGED.”

Russian trolls significantly increased their efforts to persuade Sanders supporters to oppose Clinton in the general election.

Linvill, the Clemson researcher, said the Russians saw Sanders as “just a tool.”

“He is a wedge to drive into the Democratic Party,” resulting in lower turnout for Clinton, he said.

The tweets suggested either voting for Trump or a third-party candidate such as Green Party nominee Jill Stein, or writing in Sanders’s name.


Attribution:The Washington Post
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