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Fake campaign news was clickbait to spamvertizers

Sometimes it was hard to tell who was doing the trolling and for what purposes. Aleta Pearce, 54, who lives in Malibu, California, was an administrator of half a dozen pro-Sanders Facebook groups and a member of many others. In May 2016, she posted a memo to various Facebook groups about the fake news issue, warning of bogus sites.

"The pattern I'm seeing is if a member is repeatedly posting articles that are only from one URL that person is just there to push advertising," Pearce wrote. "They probably have a sock account with little to no content. They are often from Russia or Macedonia." (A "sock" or "sock puppet" account uses a false identity to deceive.)

Pearce added, "Please share this with other Bernie groups so we can put an end to this spam bombing that's filling up our pages and groups. It's time to chase the mice out of the hen house and send them a message. They don't know who they are messing with."

The first tidal wave of spam was mostly anti-Bernie, Pearce recalled, posted by Clinton backers. (David Brock's Clinton-backing super PAC had likely paid for some portion of those.) But after Clinton became the Democratic nominee in July, Pearce noticed a switch to anti-Hillary messages with links to fake news and to real news with obnoxious pop-up ads.

"Every site publishing those ― you clicked on the article, you would be slammed with ads and strange articles," Pearce told HuffPost. "It was overwhelming. It was 24/7."

In Act 2, Russian Trolls Fooled Sanders Voters With Anti-Clinton Fake News
The trolls set out to distract and divide the invigorated left.

But Matthew Smollon, a 34-year-old copy editor and page designer based in Knoxville, Tennessee had a hard time convincing other Bernie supporters that they were being played. "No one cared," Smollon said. "At that point, you were a Hillary shill. It was like an echo chamber of anger."

Even when pointing out that something like NBCPolitics.org was a fake site ― the real site is NBCNews.com/politics ― he drew criticism. He was eventually removed as a moderator from one of the pro-Sanders Facebook groups. "It's the closest I've been to being gaslit in my life," he said.

In June, Smollon posted a piece on Medium with the headline, "Dear Bernie Supporters: Stop sharing posts from dumpster fire websites." He urged his fellow Sanders fans to wake up:

Guys, I sincerely love you. I love your passion. I love your fire. I love all of that. But when 400 people are circle-jerking clickbait links in between wondering how Hillary Clinton is behind the FEMA Earthquake drill that happens on several days with one of them being primary day?

But the legitimate skepticism opened the door to believing the more demented propaganda. And the more the fake news was passed around, the harder the divisions became. Clinton backers would charge Sanders supporters with being obnoxious, sexist "Bernie bros." Many of those bros may have been trolls, not real Sanders supporters. Tell that to a Clinton backer, however, and you can be accused of dismissing the hostility they faced.

Aidan King set up a popular Reddit page for Sanders beginning in 2013 and went to work for the campaign in January 2016 as Sigala's deputy. He dealt directly with many of the Facebook groups. After the Democratic convention, he said he noticed a strong shift away from the party in the tone of many of those pages.

-- Ryan Grim , Jason Cherkis


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