Explainer: Why were the Russians Backing Bernie Sanders?

Sally Madden

In America’s 2016 election, it became clear that outsiders were pulling political strings and sowing societal unrest. The 2020 election will be no different, except this time Russia isn’t just backing Donald Trump, it’s backing Bernie Sanders too.

In January of 2020, the FBI had a meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders. In this meeting, he was told that the intelligence community had reason to believe that he was the Russian’s preferred democratic candidate, and that they may have been intervening in the election on his behalf.

Then on February 13th, The Director of National Intelligence Office, Shelby Pierson, who is in charge of election interference, briefed the Whitehouse. Her first point was that the Russians had already begun interfering with the 2020 election. She then made it clear that while Russia had engaged in activity that demonstrated support for Sanders, there was still a clear preference for Donald Trump.

At the time of Sanders’ briefing, he said nothing to the public, later saying that this was due to the classified nature of the information.

“I go to many intelligence briefings which I don’t reveal to the public,” said Sanders.

However, it’s likely that there is another reason he didn’t reveal this information to the public; Sanders may not want to be seen as Russia’s favourite in this election.

If Sanders is trying to think ahead for his election he only wants there to be one Russian puppet in the election, and he wants that to be Donald Trump. He doesn’t want Trump to be able to use this against him.

The information eventually became public knowledge in February, when the Washington Post ran a story on it. The story was released just before the Nevada caucuses, threatening Sander’s campaign and maddening him, with the Senator sarcastically calling the Washington Post “good friends” for running the story.

Dr Kenneth McDonagh, an Associate Professor of International Relations in DCU said that while Sanders’ rationale for not disclosing the information was sound, it may hurt him in the long run.

“For Sanders, Russian activity puts him in a very difficult position,” he said.

“There is no suggestion of coordination so it’s not the case that his campaign has done anything wrong, unlike the 2016 Trump campaign which clearly had taken direct information from Russian sources.”

“But his decision to not go public with the advice may prove to be a poor judgement call. His rationale was understandable, as he would have seen it as a distraction to his core campaign messages on healthcare and the economy. But by not addressing it he may have given Biden and others leeway to imply that there was something untoward about the relationship, particularly when presented in the context of his previous trips to Russia,” he added.

Meanwhile, Trump was furious that Russian interference is once again a topic of public discussion. At a rally in Las Vegas, he said it was all fabrication.

“I was told that was happening. I was told a week ago. They said, you know, they’re trying to start a rumour. It’s disinformation. That’s the only thing they’re good at. They’re not good at anything else. They get nothing done. Do Nothing Democrats,” he said.

In reality, the information came from people in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, all of whom work for Trump.

The intelligence communities methods are secretive, and so it is hard to know exactly how they came to the conclusion that Russia was backing both Trump and Sanders, but it seems likely that they have human sources with links to the Kremlin, just as they had in 2016.

So far, these communities have seen key differences between 2016 interference and 2020 interference.

In 2016, Russians were posing as Americans online, putting out ads and generally spreading misinformation online. But they then would get removed from Facebook for inauthentic behaviour because they weren’t real Americans.

Now, the Russians are putting the same kind of falsity on forums like Reddit, where it gets picked up by real Americans who post it on their Facebook. Facebook can’t remove those real Americans for expressing these views because they’re protected under the First Amendment, which provides Americans with the right to free speech.

In the Cold War, the Soviets called these people “useful idiots” because they unintentionally picked up a Russian theme, a piece of disinformation, and repeated it until it became organic.

In modern times, this false information will be posted on Facebook, tweeted and aired on television.

So why are the Russians backing two candidates with such different ideology? One reason could be that both these candidates are extremes in their own parties, and tend to attract very partisan supporters.

If Russia does want to cause discord, a great way to do so would be to have to politically polarised groups going after one another. Dr McDonagh says it’s important to remember that “The Russians don’t really care who wins the democratic primary as long as the party emerges weak and divided at the end of the process.”

The Russians are exploiting the lack of political middle ground evident in these groups, using issues on which Sanders and Trump dramatically differ, such as immigration or healthcare. They pump the issues up on social media, post it on Reddit and hope it spreads and makes Americans, and even those watching across the world, angry at one another. Many believe this is done with the aim of making American elections look rigged and divided. More importantly, it makes democracy look chaotic and untrustworthy.

Dr McDonagh said it also serves Russia by keeping the USA focused on domestic unrest.

“In terms of the Presidency, the Russians want Trump to be reelected as it will mean a continued weak and unfocused US presence in international organisations and greater strategic opportunities for Russia in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere. They do not want a return to a competent US administration,” he said.

How do we even begin to tackle this kind of sophisticated misinformation? McDonagh says this is a challenge not only for America but for the world.

“This is a significant challenge, not just for the US but for all democracies. The real challenge is striking a balance between free speech and the need to counter disinformation. Part of the solution is to treat Social media companies as publishers rather than as platforms. This would create a legal liability around disinformation that might focus minds in these companies as it will hit the bottom line. Self-regulation has not worked but we have yet to see an effective method of countering misinformation,’ he said.

It seems, however, that Russia’s attempts to back Sanders have been less successful than they would have hoped, with the Senator performing poorly in the democratic primaries. Sanders says that while his campaign is not coming to an end, he will need to “access” it.

Sally Madden

Image Credit: Flickr