Did Russia Attempt to Influence Sanders’ Supporters?

During the House Intelligence Committee hearing with FBI Director Comey and NSA Director Rogers, Republican legislators went to great lengths to distract from the central question Comey said was at the heart of the investigation: that it was directed at Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 election and the question of whether or not members of the Trump campaign cooperated with them.

Along with Republicans, there are some liberals who are skeptical about how this investigation is unfolding. One of them is Matt Taibbi, as Martin just noted. In response to some of the inquiries that came up during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, he provides a distraction from that central question.

Under questioning by Sen. Mark Warner, Retired Gen. Keith Alexander — former director of the National Security Agency — said, “Senator, I think what they were trying to do was drive a wedge within the Democratic Party between the Clinton group and the Sanders group. And then in our nation between Republicans and Democrats.” Taibbi responded with this:

To describe Sanders followers as unwitting dupes who departed the true DNC faith because of evil Russian propaganda is both insulting and ridiculous. It’s also a testimony to the remarkable capacity for self-deception within the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Did you catch the distraction? The questions on the table are not whether Russia’s attempts to influence the election were successful. They are: what did the Russians do to influence the election? And was the Trump campaign involved?

To address the first question, Ryan Grimm and Jason Cherkis wrote an extensive piece about the fake news tsunami directed at Sanders groups during the campaign. This was widely acknowledged — even by Sanders’ staff.

Keegan Goudiss, who ran digital advertising for Sanders’ presidential bid, had a different perspective on the trolling. He launched paid campaigns on social media and around the internet, so he was very familiar with the way that money can drive a meme…

Goudiss recalled one telling example of how this worked: A Clinton ad appeared in the middle of a row of links, clearly paid for by a pro-Clinton group targeting potential donors and voters. To its left was a story making bogus claims about an illegitimate Clinton child. To its right was a piece on presidential mistresses. “There seems to have been a concerted effort to tarnish Hillary and people in her campaign’s reputation using paid placement,” he said.

He can’t prove who was doing that, Goudiss said, but it’s probably worth trying to figure out.

“Was there a Russian entity supporting those websites that popped up?” he said. “That’s important and people deserve to know who influences our democracy.”

Goudiss is right to say that the question about Russia’s involvement in this fake news tsunami is important. Whether or not it worked to diminish support for Clinton is irrelevant.

While the Steele dossier is increasingly being validated, there is still work to be done there. But it states clearly that the Wikileaks release of DNC emails just prior to the Democratic Convention had been an attempt to “swing supporters of Bernie Sanders away from Hillary Clinton and across to Trump.” Further, a memo dated August 10, 2016 points to these kinds of tactics as part of the Russian operation.

The tactics would be to spread rumors and misinformation about the content of what had already been leaked (DNC/Clinton emails) and make up new content…the audience to be targeted by such operations was the educated youth in America as the PA assessed that there was still a chance that they could be persuaded to vote for Republican candidate Donald Trump as a protest against the Washington establishment.

None of that is an indictment of Bernie Sanders or his supporters. But if we are going to investigate the various ways that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election, this is a legitimate line of inquiry.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.