Are you being harassed by a Bernie Bro or a Bernie bot?

Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

It’s hard to know the difference.

Bernie Sanders’ Tuesday morning announcement that he would join the 2020 presidential race means one thing is inevitable: Online will be hell for the foreseeable future.

Throughout the 2016 primaries and even through the presidential election, Bernie Bros—a subset of extreme supporters—wreaked terror on Twitter, in Reddit threads and infamously on women reporters and Hillary Clinton supporters.

The Bernie Bro is a meme but also a phenomenon. It represents arguably one of the first times a die-hard mob formed around a presidential candidate and used social media so vigorously in support of them.

And now, everyone is bracing for their return. But what if this time, it’s just the bots?

A recent report by Politico found that bot and inauthentic activity was ramping up on Twitter in advance of 2020, with Bernie Sanders one of the candidates seeing fake tweets and replies happening on their behalf, trying to widen America’s already chasm-like political divides.

So how do you know if it’s a bot or a bro in your mentions?

What is a Bernie Bro?

In 2016, Vox described Bernie Bros as a strain of Sanders supporters, made up of mostly younger white men. And according to the rest of the internet, they’re typically awful.

“[A Bernie Bro] typically presents as a white, male Bernie Sanders supporter who haunts Internet comment sections,” Slate reported in 2016.

The term was thrown around so often during the height of the 2016 primaries that even Urban Dictionary joined in explaining the phenomenon. The slang website defined a Bernie Bro as an “insufferable, self-righteous, left-wing activist,” and a set of “volatile, unstable, angry Bernie Sanders supporters.”

“They’re a mob, and it’s not positive toward their candidate, it’s trying to tear you down from supporting Hillary,” a chief of staff for a Democratic member of Congress who’s endorsed Clinton said at the time.

However, it’s wrong to paint all of Bernie’s support at young and male. Bernie Bros only represent a group of supporters. In his past run, Sanders garnered support from minority and young voters according to a Harvard-Harris poll.

https://twitter.com/LouisatheLast/status/1097925771958603776

But the actual Bros were one unique kind of terrible. True-to-form Bernie Bros are obsessive, narcissistic young men who grapple with feminism and are just a Facebook war away from saying all genders matter

As we saw in the race between Sanders and Clinton, Bernie Bros are typically sexist—a troubling factor considering how many women are already running in 2020. During the 2016 primaries, the bros were called out for aggressive online attacks against women reporters and female Clinton supporters, The New York Times reported.

Bill Clinton condemned those attacks, saying that Bernie Bros forced a female blogger to use a pseudonym to avoid “vicious trolling and attacks that are literally too profane often—not to mention sexist—to repeat.”

“Berniebros clearly do exist,” Washington Post correspondent Philip Bump wrote in 2016. “While fans of many of the candidates paint the 2016 election in remarkably stark terms of doom and transcendence, fans of Sanders are very vocal about it—and that overlaps with an internet culture that’s broadly slow to keep young, angry men in check when they act out. With a culture that often fails when it tries to do so.”

Bros were in full form back in 2016 when Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and Clinton supporter posted a photo of her and Clinton on stage together to her Facebook page.

As documented by Mashable, comments included gems like “Their vaginas are making terrible choices,”  written by someone named Scott Lockhart, who also commented about supporting Sanders.

And when Sanders announced this week, many women who were vocal in the 2016 election, voiced their concerns, saying that the bros who @’ed them incessantly, trying to shout down support of Clinton, would be back.

But, not all Bernie Bros are Bernie Bros. In a number of 2016 autopsies, we learned that some of the Twitter accounts that were masking as extreme Bernie Bros were actually bots.

https://twitter.com/5thdimdreamz/status/737609961610448900

Twitter users, like Guns Down America Executive Director Igor Volsky, are claiming to have already gotten into spats with bots on the very first day of Bernie’s announcement.

And last month, reporter Josh Emerson tracked down a Turkish bot tweeting about Sanders.

According to The New York Times, Twitter identified more than 2,000 accounts controlled by Russian operatives and over 36,000 bots that tweeted 1.4 million times during the election.

And they’re not all telling readers just to  #feelthebern. Bots exist to influence opinions—in 2016’s case, to influence an American presidential election—to poke and to antagonize.

But seeing as Bernie Bros being vocal made for a divisive primary season in the last election, there’s no surprise they are back in bot form. They’ll want people who are anti-Bernie to hate him just as much as die-hard Bros really do love him.

To combat this, there are easy tips to ensure see if you are dealing with a Bro or a bot. Perhaps the easiest step is to use websites like botcheck.me. By typing in a user’s handle will tell you if the account is likely a political bot or tweeting out highly automated patterns.

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL) suggests looking out for factors like how often tweets are posted, if bios and profile photos are generic, a lack of original wording and a lot of retweets. 

And if the early returns are any indications, the bots will be everywhere. As will the Bros.

But while both are likely to be harassing you, neither are worth your time.

Emily Bloch

Emily Bloch

Emily Bloch is a multimedia journalist based out of South Florida. She covers a mix of politics and entertainment for local, regional, and national publications including Teen Vogue and Business Insider.