The 2016 presidential elections were marred with thousands of fake social media accounts tracing their origins to “troll farms” based in Russia that sought to sow the seeds of discord among American voters by spreading controversial stories and dubious sources on popular platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The strategy worked in the sense that it increased the intensity of an already divided voter base, and coupled with Donald Trump’s blunt rhetoric, expanded the divide that already existed between supporters of Trump and Hillary Clinton. While Trump was eventually cleared of any direct wrongdoing in association with the election interference, there was sufficient evidence that these Russian social media “trolls” engaged in inflammatory online behavior meant to stir up divisions between Americans.
The activity gave rise to various conspiracy theories, the most prevalent being that Russian President Vladimir Putin had a preference for Donald Trump to be elected president. In 2020, however, evidence is beginning to emerge that the trolls are back and this time they are boosting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The Washington Post reported this week that Sanders’ campaign was briefed by US officials that Russia has been attempting to help his campaign in order to interfere with the Democratic nomination process. Sanders was quick to deny any involvement and condemn any action by Russia to interfere with the elections, as well as turn the argument against Trump by criticizing him of not doing enough to prevent their actions.
This is coming as other Democratic candidates are blaming Sanders for the actions of his supporters, or alleged supporters, or even blaming him for actions that aren’t directly linked to his campaign. Michael Bloomberg’s offices were vandalized in Knoxville, TN, and campaign manager Kevin Sheekey immediately implied that the attacks came from Sanders’ supporters.
Following the 2016 election, it seemed as though the Russian agenda for political interference was to help Trump win the election. In 2020, as they are assisting Sanders, it is becoming more clear that their intentions are not meant to prefer one candidate over another, but rather to destabilize the political process as much as possible. Sanders (and Trump) are both known to have rhetoric that galvanizes their supporter base while alienating and ostracizing their opposition. These features make either candidate preferable for Russian interests. A Trump-Sanders contest in November would only divide the country more and enable the trolls to continue to create and promote inflammatory content that they could only hope would lead to violence and other extremist activities within the US.
The difference in 2020 is that there is additional public and governmental awareness of interference attempts, as well as an increased awareness of the growth of “fake news.” However, this doesn’t seem to have stopped agents from falsifying thousands of identities in order to create online personas that continue to spread inflammatory content. Their worst nightmare would be a more moderate candidate that sought to stabilize and unify Americans, and so this time around it seems they have found their latest proxy for division in Bernie Sanders.