Clinton Team Cynically Exploits 'Cyberbullying' to Justify $1 Million Online Propaganda Push
Friday, Clinton super PAC Correct the Record announced it was starting a million-dollar social media campaign to “push back” against online criticism of Clinton supporters and her superdelegates. It’s a plan awash in PR posture about “cyberbullying” that amounts to little more than a classic social media astroturf campaign—the likes of which we’ve seen everywhere from Russia to Mexico to the Department of Defense.
Clinton’s super PAC is spending lots of money for some combination of real and automated persona management to counter hostile messages on social media.
This was timed with an effort by the Clinton campaign, who ran an anti-“cyberbullying” message to two uncritical outlets: MSNBC and CNN—neither of which connected Clinton's otherwise non sequitur concern for cyberbullying with her super PAC’s parallel effort to frame online critics as such to justify a million-dollar astroturfing effort.
How can the campaign and Correct the Record coordinate such an effort? Simple: the Clinton campaign and its most influential super PAC guru David Brock have argued they can coordinate messaging, so long as it’s online and not an “independent expenditure.” As the Sunlight Foundation’s Libby Watson explained to the Daily Beast:
Super PACs aren’t supposed to coordinate with candidates. The whole reasoning behind (Supreme Court decision) Citizens United rests on (PACs) being independent, but Correct the Record claims it can coordinate. It’s not totally clear what their reasoning is, but it seems to be that material posted on the Internet for free—like, blogs—doesn’t count as an “independent expenditure.”
While Clinton supporters have indeed been subject to online harassment—as I noted in February—there’s little reason to suspect they’ve been alone (one Tumblr that collects tweets and Facebook posts showing Sanders and his partisans being attacked makes this clear). It’s also worth highlighting that Clinton’s super PAC Correct the Record has already been using paid trolls to message on social media. Buried in Correct the Record’s press release is this interesting nugget: “the task force currently combats online political harassment, having already addressed more than 5,000 individuals who have personally attacked Secretary Clinton on Twitter.” So, there’s a greater than trivial chance you’ve already run across one of these bots if you're on Twitter.
Some have accused Sanders of participating in the same activities, but the Daily Beast was quick to report that there is no evidence the Vermont senator has engaged in such practices.
There’s a foul stench of cynicism with framing routine social media astroturfing as an anti-bullying effort, but it's also par for course. There isn’t a social media astroturfing effort in the history of the practice that hasn’t argued that it’s simply pushing back against “misinformation” or harassment.
Indeed, what Clinton is doing is no different than what Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been criticized for: paying for some combination of automated software and real people to spam social media and comment sections with propaganda. The difference is in the framing: Clinton is “pushing back” against “bullies” while Putin is “paying troll farms” to disseminate “propaganda."
The similarities don’t stop there. Clinton is apparently spending the exact same amount on her astroturf effort as Putin did, according to a 2014 Buzzfeed report on Putin’s “troll army”:
Kremlin campaign to claim control over the Internet, launching a million-dollar army of trolls to mold American public opinion...
A similar framing disparity is seen when the Israeli government uses social media sock puppets vs. when Russia does. Notice: Israel “pay[s] students” to “defend it online,” while Russia has “professional trolls” spread “online propaganda”:
But the practice is the same; all that’s different is how it’s framed—and thus far, the Clinton camp’s scrappy “pushing back” framing remains unchallenged.
The Bernie Bro bully narrative has been a favorite of the Clinton campaign’s high-profile defenders—largely because it allows them to gloss over policy differences and avoid legitimate criticism—so it’s logical her super PAC communications team would frame one of the most powerful people in the world, a former secretary of state and senator who has made tens of millions since leaving public office, as a victim under siege by a mob of foaming Sanders zealots.