How Hillary Clinton supporters found their voice online

Holly Ellis doesn’t like to talk politics on social media unless she’s confident her opinions will be popular. 

“I know it sounds pathetic,” she admits, “but I’m just not interested in getting into debates that I know are going to upset me or others, unless it’s in-person where I can make sure that I’m understood.”

Ellis, a 37-year-old film and television producer living in Brooklyn, rolls in a social circle that shares her progressive outlook, but they don’t always agree. In 2008, when most of her friends were backing Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, she favored Hillary Clinton

Eight years later, she still does—but you might not know it from following her on social media.

While Clinton has led her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in most national polls since the race began, outspoken support for the former secretary of state is remarkably absent online. That may now be changing.

“For them, the reaction seemed to have a sense of relief. Like, ‘Finally, someone else agrees with me and I feel safe to say what I think!’”

“As much as I have enjoyed Obama’s presidency, my concerns in 2008 were the same as they are now: We need a president who isn’t interested in making governing look as sexy or exciting as campaigning,” Ellis says. “We need someone who does the damn work.” 

For Ellis, that person is Clinton, who she sees as being more well-equipped to get her plans pushed through the muck of Washington politics. As her friends increasingly began to “feel the Bern,” Ellis started to wonder if there were other Clinton supporters out there who, for one reason or another, weren’t speaking up online. So she put what she calls “a feeler post.”

“I was … surprised by how many of my friends and family liked and commented,” she recalls. “Many were women that I would normally have assumed were in Bernie’s camp (liberals, socialist leanings, etc.). For them, the reaction seemed to have a sense of relief. Like, ‘Finally, someone else agrees with me and I feel safe to say what I think!’”

As it turns out, Ellis is far from alone. An analysis by social media analytics firm Wayin, conducted on behalf of the Daily Dot, found that, for a stretch running between late January and early February, 52 percent of all the tweets mentioning Clinton by name were positive. Compare that to an analysis conducted last September, when the percentage of Clinton’s positive Twitter mentions typically hovered somewhere in the 30s—save for brief spikes to above 50 percent, like when she did the whip and nae nae on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Clinton’s favorability rating hasn’t spiked since September. If anything, it’s dipped. Nor has her support among under-30 voters—those you might expect to post their views on social media—suddenly jumped. So why is the online conversation changing?

What’s happening is a newfound willingness among many Clinton supporters to publicly voice positive opinions about the candidate, not just as the least-bad or most-electable alternative to Donald Trump but as a worthy and impressive candidate in her own right. The question is, why now?

Clinton’s favorability rating hasn’t spiked since September. So, why is the online conversation changing?

Whether this increase is the result of the rise of the “Bernie bro” narrative or the increasing competitiveness of the Democratic primary fight is up for debate. What’s clear is that, in a very real way, many long-time Clinton supporters have found their voice online and now feel more comfortable expressing their pro-Clinton sentiment just as forcefully and urgently as the messages of Sanders supporters—or, for that matter, the legions who swarmed Barack Obama into the White House eight years ago. 

Brooklyn-based Clinton backer Jessia Mowles counts herself as an example of the trend. “I’ve been a fan of Hillary Clinton’s smart, strategic liberalism for years,” says Mowles, “but really only felt compelled to speak out about my support for her when so many friends began buying into misinformation and falsehoods about her as compared to Bernie Sanders.”

Mowles is wary of what she sees as the “Republican machinery trying to discredit” Clinton, which seems to be working.

“It’s been infuriating watching my otherwise intelligent friends share articles that portray Hillary Clinton in completely dishonest ways—which has then shored up their support for Bernie Sanders,” Mowles added. “I couldn’t help but enter the fray as I watched this happen. The resulting vitriol against Hillary by fellow progressive friends, who in fact agree with 90 percent of her record, was shocking to me.”

A Google Trends search finds that the term “Bernie bros” started trending on Jan. 31, peaking just more than a week later on Feb. 8. The idea behind “Bernie bros” is that some supporters of Sanders—primarily male—have, in their enthusiasm for their candidate, created a hostile online environment for—primarily female—supporters of Clinton. Almost immediately upon popping into the race, the phenomenon was debated to death, with some arguing the harassment is a real problem, while others labeled it “a cheap campaign tactic masquerading as journalism and social activism.”

Whether or not the “Bernie bro” is a unique manifestation of the fight between Clinton and Sanders or just another instance some people—primarily male—to be horrible jerks to other people—primarily female—on the Internet is basically immaterial. The story resonated as viscerally true with many and, in politics, that resonance is what matters: The rise of the “Bernie bro” narrative coincided with a boost in online positivity flowing Clinton’s way.

What’s clear is that, in a very real way, many long-time Clinton supporters have found their voice online.

The Sanders campaign realized that the narrative of his grassroots revolution being rife with sexism was seriously bad news. “We don’t want that crap…” Sanders said during an interview with CNN earlier this month. “Look, anybody who is supporting me doing sexist things, we don’t want them. I don’t want them; that is not what this campaign is about.”

By that point, the dam had broken. Articles like Courtney Enlow’s “An All-Caps Explosion of Feelings Regarding the Liberal Backlash Against Hillary Clinton” had gone viral. 

After explaining that the “Bernie bro” attacks “against Hillary Clinton [felt] very, very personal,” Edlow proceeded to make good on her title’s promise with a long list of complaints about how she believed Clinton had been treated on the campaign trail, mostly as a result of her gender.

AND IF YOU COME AT ME FOR EVEN ONE GODDAMN SECOND WITH A “YOU JUST LIKE HER BECAUSE SHE’S A WOMAN” I WILL DESTROY YOU WHERE YOU STAND. I LIKE HER! I LIKE HER POLICIES, I LIKE HER PLANS, I LIKE WHAT SHE STANDS FOR, I LIKE THAT SHE’S GROWN AND EVOLVED AS A HUMAN AND POLITICIAN! I LIKE THAT SHE WAS FOR MANY OF US MY AGE ONE OF OUR FIRST ROLE MODELS OF A SMART, PROFESSIONAL, KICKASS WOMAN AND THAT SHE ISN’T AFRAID OF THE WORD “FEMINIST” AND I’M SICK OF HAVING TO APOLOGIZE FOR LIKING HER, FOR HAVING TO QUALIFY AND SEE YOUR SIDE AND RESPECT YOUR OPINION WHEN I FUCKING DON’T AND YOU FUCKING DON’T RIGHT BACK. I LIKE HER!

Looking at how the post spread on social media, the act of sharing the article was a similar experience. That sentiment, of seeing Clinton empathetically humanized by a barrage of seemingly unfair hostility, spurred a lot of people like Enlow into action on social media.

Heather Potts, a Clinton supporter from the San Francisco Bay Area, has backed Clinton from the beginning of the campaign, but she only recently started voicing her support online. 

“I think I am generally reticent to post on social media about political stuff, but recently I have just been so angry on her behalf,” she says. “I suppose the main change for me is that, while she is billed as ‘establishment’—perhaps rightly so, given her experience—she now feels like the underdog, and I want to support her. I want Republicans to stop bullying her, and I want Sanders supporters to compare her policies to those Sanders actually might accomplish.”

Potts says she received some negative reactions when she made a positive comment about Clinton on Instagram, but the response from sharing positive articles about Clinton on Facebook was uniformly positive—no angry comments about Clinton’s vote in favor of invading Iraq or her coziness with Wall Street. Just some likes and affirmations from friends.

“It’s more just that it’s not as fun to voice your support for a pragmatic, realist political movement as it is being part of a revolution.”

Negative comments—whether they come from “Bernie bros” or anyone else—fuel much of Clinton supporters’ apprehension about speaking out. And there’s plenty of anti-Clinton negativity to go around. The Huffington Post’s aggregate poll data shows Sanders with a 12.9 percent positive net approval rating compared to Clinton’s negative 7.5 percent. In this political environment, online debates can be exhausting. Sometimes people just want to post something they think is interesting, important, or funny and not have to think about it again. Many Clinton supporters we spoke with have assumed it wasn’t worth the trouble, at least until things got serious.

Despite Clinton’s significant lead over Sanders in most national polls and her decisive win in the Nevada caucus, much of the difference between conversations about the Democratic presidential candidates can likely be attributed to what the New York Times dubbed an “enthusiasm gap.”

For many Hillary supporters, the gap is both palpable and something that’s made them less enthusiastic about speaking up online. Then there’s the reason some support Clinton in the first place: bland realism.

Ellis’s husband, Brendan Speigel, says he supported Obama over Clinton in 2008. However, after eight years of seeing the president battle Republican obstructionism, he’s backing Clinton’s promise of just being able to win. “It’s not the most fun thing to post an article about how Hillary is really not all that great but, hey, she can probably win 75,000 more votes in Ohio, and that will make the difference, so let’s support her,” he says. “Not exactly an Instagram-ready rallying cry.”

“I’m not so much scared to voice support for her,” he continues. “It’s more just that it’s not as fun to voice your support for a pragmatic, realist political movement as it is being part of a revolution.”

In recent weeks, Speigel has become more vocal about the issue online, and he’s noticed a definite gender divide in how his content is received. “I can say that 95 percent of the people who like my posts about Hillary are women,” he notes. “I’ve been wondering why there isn’t more energy around her historic candidacy like there was last time, but now I feel like there really is a silent majority of women backing her but not talking about it.”

As Facebook‘s large-scale experiments with the “I Voted” button over the last few election cycles show, what we see our friends talking about on social media translates to a measurable, real-world effect on our voting patterns. As more Clinton supporters become increasingly vocal, it has the potential to boost turnout among her fans.

One place that’s seen a boost in pro-Clinton activity of late has, quite unexpectedly, been Reddit. The social news site has consistently been one of the most active pro-Sanders hubs on the Internet, with a network of nearly 100 distinct communities, or subreddits, that have directed more than $1 million and an army of volunteers into Sanders’s campaign war chest. But a pro-Clinton community, r/HillaryClinton, is starting to build momentum—albeit on a much smaller scale.

The r/HillaryClinton subreddit was started back in 2012, likely with the intention of being a placeholder for her expected 2016 presidential run. Until recently, however, the page was only receiving a trickle of traffic. In the last few weeks, the community has seen explosion of activity. Last September, r/HillaryClinton only saw about 18,000 pageviews. In January, that number had grown to around 270,000. With a week still to go in February, it’s already received over 700,000.

“Perhaps due to the early feeling of ‘inevitability’ of Hillary’s nomination for the Democrats, many of her followers on Reddit … [ourselves] included, remained complacent and veritably silent as the Bernie wave came on,” a volunteer moderator of r/HillaryClinton explains. “As 2015 wore on, some of us Hillary followers got tired of the constant stream of negativity regarding Hillary and started to speak out.”

“I feel like there really is a silent majority of women backing her but not talking about it.”

Towards the latter half of last year, the current moderators found r/HillaryClinton more or less dormant and actively worked to turn it into a hub for sharing pro-Clinton news stories, coordinating fundraising efforts, and recruiting volunteers.

“As the primaries officially kicked off in Iowa and … [New Hampshire] had their votes counted, the ‘inevitability’ of Hillary winning the nomination no longer seems so clear. I think Hillary followers have realized they can’t just sit idly by while Sanders continues to gain steam, and have finally come to terms that they need to add their voices of support to the discussion,” the moderator says. “From our perspective on Reddit, these toxic anti-Hillary types the media refers to as ‘Bernie Bros’ have been around since last summer and have been steadily growing in numbers, which has had some influence on getting us to stand up for Hillary, but I think the biggest trigger for an increase in support for Hillary has been the feeling of needing to get involved if we want to actually see her win in November.”

Clinton’s power base has never been the Internet. Rather, it’s the infrastructure of a Democratic party that, by one measure, favors her over Sanders by a 45-to-one margin. But that hasn’t historically been enough. Eight years ago, she was felled by the Web-fueled candidacy of a fresh-faced freshman senator from Illinois. 

Today, she’s still, in many ways, playing catch-up to a white-haired socialist from Vermont. Yet, her legion of once-silent supporters would prefer history not repeat itself. And increasingly, they’re telling people that. 

Photo via Håkan Dahlström / Flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.