In February 2020, following allegations that his supporters were engaging in online attacks against Democrats critical of his policies, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont repeatedly suggested that some of this toxicity may actually be coming from Russian actors.
Sanders, who was at the time seeking the Democractic nomination for the 2020 presidential election, implied at a February 18 CNN town hall that bots might have been behind a spate of Twitter and phone harassment targeting the Nevada Culinary Workers Union. The union had opposed Sanders’ Medicare For All healthcare plan. “[W]e live in a crazy time,” Sanders said. “And there are a lot of folks out there who do bots and all these other things. I saw some of those things. And there are people out there who want to divide the progressive movement.”
On February 19, during a debate in Las Vegas between Democractic candidates, Sanders suggested that Russians might be manning some of the social media accounts that had participated in the attacks. “All of us remember 2016, and what we remember is efforts by Russians and others to try to interfere in our elections and divide us up. I’m not saying that’s happening, but it would not shock me.”
A separate Washington Post article on February 21 reported that U.S. officials had informed Sanders — “about a month ago,” in Sanders’ words — that Russia is attempting to interfere with the Democratic race and engaging in activity to support his campaign.
Sanders then issued a statement that said, “In 2016, Russia used internet propaganda to sow division in our country, and my understanding is that they are doing it again in 2020. Some of the ugly stuff on the internet attributed to our campaign may well not be coming from real supporters.”
Evidence of Attribution
Specific evidence that Russian actors might be responsible for the attacks against the Nevada Culinary Workers Union has not been made public, nor has Sanders himself publicly provided evidence for his repeated suggestion that vitriolic social media activity coming from self-proclaimed supporters could actually be attributed to a foreign disinformation campaign.
Details from the attribution judgment by U.S. officials identifying Russia as the origin of assistance to the Sanders campaign, as reported by the Washington Post on February 21, have not been made public.
Why this Story is Challenging to Report
A prominent political figure says that Russia might once again be interfering with a U.S. election: that’s a story most reporters would want to cover. But the lack of public evidence to back up the claim presents a challenge for journalists. All they’re left with is one person, on the public stage, suggesting foreign interference.
How the Press Covered Attribution
To assess whether Sanders’ allegations were likely true, The Daily Beast and The Washington Post‘ February 20 article asked disinformation-tracking experts and platforms whether they had evidence of Russian actors disguising themselves as Sanders supporters online.
The articles pointed out that Twitter had said it would disclose activity by foreign actors if there was evidence of state-backed information operations, but that it did not do so in this case. A Facebook spokesman told the Washington Post that it had no evidence of Russian trolls pretending to be Sanders supporters.
Disinformation researchers from Graphika, the Alliance for Securing Democracy and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab told both outlets that they had not seen such evidence, and noted the dangers of making insinuations about foreign influence operations without providing proof.
Assessing Press Coverage
The Daily Beast article and the February 20 Washington Post article are examples of effective and accurate reporting of an attribution claim.
- Because no direct evidence had been provided, they asked platforms and outside experts if they had found evidence. The Daily Beast and the Washington Post reached out to the platforms where the abusive behavior was taking place to ask whether they had seen evidence supporting the Senator’s claims. They asked the same of multiple organizations with experience in tracking online disinformation campaigns. Both newsrooms included the responses in their articles.
- They identified gaps in the evidence. In particular, The Daily Beast’s headline (“Experts Say There’s ‘No Evidence’ for Bernie’s Russian Bot Claim”) nips the speculation in the bud by leading with the experts’ assessment. Many readers are not actually going to read past the headline; putting the experts’ conclusion first, rather than merely repeating the claim, clearly conveys that there is no evidence to support Sanders’ speculations. The Washington Post’s headline (“Sanders implies Russia, not his supporters, may be to blame for online vitriol. Experts aren’t so sure.”) also mentions the experts, though it may have been even more effective had it led with the expert assessment rather than the Sanders claim.