On Debate Night, Sanders’ Online Army Is Ready for Battle
The vast network of volunteers and supporters backing Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has made a habit of breaking records this election season.
In July, they signed up in record numbers to livestream one of the senator’s speeches at some 3,000 watch parties. In August, 28,000 of them turned out to a rally in Portland, Oregon, making it the biggest campaign event of the 2016 season. And some 650,000 of them have donated to the campaign more than one million times, outpacing even President Obama’s record-setting number of individual contributions at this point in the race during the last election cycle.
Now, as Sanders and the other Democratic candidates have their first opportunity to debate each other tonight in Las Vegas, Sanders’ online army is banding together once again to amplify the senator’s voice.
In many ways, Sanders’ campaign has been the quintessential campaign of this election season. Far from a high-tech outfit, the effort has grown largely on the back of volunteers who use existing platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook to expand the campaign’s reach. Even more than Trump, whose celebrity and notoriety preceded him, Sanders’ campaign proves just how much power these tech platforms have given the electorate, enabling them to rewrite the rules around money and the media and their roles in building up and breaking down candidates.
By banding together on social media, Reddit, and homemade sites like FeelTheBern.org, Sanders supporters have been able to reclaim the narrative about a candidate who, left to the mainstream political machine, almost surely would have faded into the background. That skill will be especially crucial on a night like tonight, as online supporters can play a critical role in cutting through the scripted talking points and cable news circus.
“With any political coverage, a lot of people look to the media to make decisions for them. Who’s winning? Who’s losing?” says Daniela Perdomo, organizer of FeelTheBern.org. “Something that’s really powerful about social media and makes grassroots so influential is we have an opportunity to reframe the same event.”
That’s what the volunteers working to support Sanders are hoping to do tonight. Much of that work started in the days leading up to the event. Last Thursday, for instance, FeelTheBern launched a so-called Bernie Sanders Infobomb. Using the site Thunderclap, which makes it possible for large groups to share the same message on social media at the same time, Perdomo and her group asked supporters to tweet a link to FeeltheBern.org, which clearly explains Sanders’ stance on issues from criminal justice to healthcare to immigration. The goal was to get 500 people to share the link. Instead, more than 2,000 people did, creating a potential audience of more than 1.6 million people.
“We wanted to empower people with information, not opinions,” Perdomo says.
— Daniela Perdomo (@danielaperdomo) October 8, 2015
Another group called Coders for Sanders has been working on a tool called Debate With Bernie that allows people to automatically retweet anything from Sanders’ account tonight. During the first Republican debate, says Jon Culver, who created the tool, Sanders was the most retweeted candidate of the night, thanks to this tweet:
It’s over. Not one word about economic inequality, climate change, Citizens United or student debt. That’s why the Rs are so out of touch.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 7, 2015
Culver says the goal of Debate With Bernie is to make it easier for followers to spread Sanders’ messages to their own networks. “We saw how well he did during the Republican debates, and thought this would be a great way to amplify his message,” Culver says.
Meanwhile, over on the ever-growing Sanders for President subreddit, which now has 115,000 subscribers, Aidan King and his fellow moderators will be hosting a mega-thread devoted to the debate. Other members will transcribe all the questions and answers and translate them into Spanish. King has also been working in the lead-up to the debate to encourage followers to sign up for one of 4,000 debate watch parties happening across the country. The goal is to transform people from “armchair activists” into actual activists. “That’s been our biggest mission the last two weeks,” says King, who helped start the Sanders subreddit, “to get people to back up their words and say, ‘I’ll be here on this day and I’ll volunteer and put in hours on the ground and hours at the desk.’”
None of this is to say that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a sizable online audience of her own. According to Facebook, she’s the second-most discussed candidate after Donald Trump. And of course, she’s still the Democratic frontrunner. But given all the hype that’s followed Clinton from first lady to senator to secretary of state to potential candidate to candidate, you could easily argue that Clinton would have been the frontrunner and the most talked-about Democratic candidate regardless of what her online supporters did or didn’t do. For Sanders, on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to imagine him getting to this point without them.