Hillary Clinton’s Super PAC, Taking a Page from Vladimir Putin, Spends $1 Million on Online TrollsPhoto by Justin Sullivan/Getty Politics News Hillary Clinton
“Correct the Record” is a pro-Clinton super PAC founded and run by a man named David Brock—a former conservative hit man whose greatest hits include the vicious defaming of sexual assault victim Anita Hill when she threatened to subvert the Supreme Court appointment of conservative justice Clarence Thomas. Just for fun, here’s Brock on himself from a 2001 “confession” designed to promote his tell-all, come-to-Jesus book:
Describing an article he wrote for The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, in 1992, which became the basis for his book on Ms. Hill, he said he did everything he could to ‘’ruin Hill’s credibility,’’ using ‘’virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation I had collected on Hill into the vituperative mix.’‘
‘’I demonized Democratic senators, their staffs, and Hill’s feminist supporters without ever interviewing any of them,’’ he continued.
The reformed version of Brock has been the same vicious, defamatory creature of his past, but this time on behalf of Bill and Hillary Clinton. He went from being one of the most fearsome propagandists of the conservative right—one who arguably set Bill Clinton’s impeachment in motion—to…well, to one of the most fearsome propagandists of the political left. He’s good at what he does, and his “progressive media watchdog group” Media Matters for America quickly became a force in D.C., with millions in donations and the support of the Center for American Progress.
But Brock reserves his talent strictly for the establishment wing of the political left, and as the founder of Correct the Record, the infamous pro-Clinton super PAC, he has already brought his old flame-throwing instincts to bear on Bernie Sanders, sending trackers to follow him around the campaign trail to categorize every misstep, and even attempting to tie him to Hugo Chavez.
On the public side of things, David Brock has been fairly quiet during the primary cycle, mostly because the real mud-slinging has yet to begin. Hillary Clinton needs Bernie Sanders voters in the general election, so the full-throttle negativity has been limited. The real fun for Brock will begin after the convention. But one place where he and others have been far more active is the online realm—an area dominated by the young, and thus by Sanders supporters.
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.”
This is a comical definition that does its best to hide the true purpose: Paying online trolls to support Hillary and antagonize Bernie and his supporters in an attempt to level the playing field. More language from the statement:
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.
The focus of the “digital task force” of paid trolls will be predictable: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, and everywhere else people may come across political messaging.
The aim is clear—muddy the waters, and limit the potential of online progressive activism, which has raised millions of dollars for Bernie Sanders and undoubtedly recruited thousands of voters to his cause. One common reaction to the news is shock—the idea that this is “unprecedented” in American politics. That may be true, but there’s a clear model here, and it comes straight from Russia.
If you haven’t yet read Adrian Chen’s wonderful New York Times Magazine feature “The Agency,” I recommend that you do so now. It’s an incredible look at the “Internet Research Agency,” which employs “hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.””
Some of these employees spent their time posting in comments sections, while others went so far as to start their own blogs on seemingly non-political subjects, only to weave political messages into their content when they had an audience. But this wasn’t just about convincing Internet users to support the Kremlin’s positions. It was also about turning the Internet into a political wasteland, so that if anyone sought information that might be against Kremlin policy, they’d encounter a confusing morass and feel immediately discouraged. Chen met with a liberal campaign manager named Leonid Volkov who emphasized this point:
“The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,” Volkov said, when we met in the office of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “You have to remember the Internet population of Russia is just over 50 percent. The rest are yet to join, and when they join it’s very important what is their first impression.” The Internet still remains the one medium where the opposition can reliably get its message out. But their message is now surrounded by so much garbage from trolls that readers can become resistant before the message even gets to them. During the protests, a favorite tactic of the opposition was making anti-Putin hashtags trend on Twitter. Today, waves of trolls and bots regularly promote pro-Putin hashtags. What once was an exhilarating act of popular defiance now feels empty. “It kind of discredited the idea of political hashtags,” says Ilya Klishin, the web editor for the independent television station TV Rain who, in 2011, created the Facebook page for the antigovernment protests.
This is exactly what’s happening with David Brock’s “Barrier Breakers 2016.” In fact, I’d be surprised if the Internet Research Agency, and perhaps Chen’s article, wasn’t a direct inspiration. This is not about providing a “a presence and space online where Clinton supporters can organize and engage with one another,” and anyone who believes that message has been fooled. This is about attacking the ability of Clinton’s enemies to organize themselves online. As Chen wrote of the Russian troll factory, “its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.”
Clinton and her supporters have watched, in something like horror, as the Internet has aided Bernie Sanders in mounting a shockingly successful insurgent campaign against the establishment—one that came up short, but just barely. David Brock’s aim, with Barrier Breakers 2016, is to make sure it never happens again.