How Facebook Took Away Bernie Sanders’ Hopes and Dreams
As Bernie saw it, to win, we would have to reach out to new audiences. That didn’t only mean going on Fox or Rogan. Bernie wanted to create his own media. For that reason, probably no development was more important to our campaign than something that had occurred nearly two years before it launched.
In February 2017, Donald Trump would deliver his first address to Congress. While the Democratic Party would have an official response, Bernie decided to do one of his own as well. We had a massive audience on Facebook and the ability to stream live from the studio on the sixth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building. And we knew millions of supporters from the 2016 campaign would want to hear what he had to say.
During Tom Daschle’s time as Democratic leader, he built a fully functioning television and radio studio for the caucus. The Senate has a facility that all members can use, but the one Daschle built is just for Democrats. The facility includes a full soundstage and a modern control room. Most members used it only to beam back into their local TV stations.
We would do something different. Following the Democratic response to Trump’s address, Bernie would offer remarks focusing on the issues he cared about. We would stream it on Facebook, in part as a test to see what type of audience we could attract. Convinced we could execute the broadcast technically, Bernie signed off on the plan.
Warren Gunnels, Bernie, and I spent the day in Bernie’s office writing his speech. We went back and forth over drafts, me sitting on a chair, Bernie reading the speech, and Warren pecking away at the keyboard, one key at a time. Bernie’s idea was to respond to Trump not by talking about what he did say but about what he didn’t, and we drafted a speech along those lines.
About twenty minutes after Trump finished, Bernie walked through the labyrinth of reporters outside the Senate chamber and made his way back to the office. It was clear that he was nervous. Despite having spoken countless times in front of millions of people, Bernie is still anxious in the moments before he steps up to the microphone. Once he is onstage—and paradoxically enough, especially with a large crowd—he finds his comfort zone. But until then, particularly in big moments, you can sense, even see, the tension. Speeches are often practiced repeatedly, with Bernie concentrating on every word, chasing a self-imposed standard of perfection he never seems to reach. The writing process, in fact, is more about him rehearsing the speech than it is about writing. Bernie fights for every word as if the fate of the world hangs on it. Speeches, regardless of audience, are serious matters, not something to be done casually. This speech was even more critical.
In many ways, this moment was a demarcation point for the country. The 2016 election was over. Donald Trump was now president. The first political battles of the administration were behind us—most notably, the lying about the number of people who attended his inauguration and the Muslim travel ban.
The loose movement that some called, at least on social media, #TheResistance, was coming together. Where would Bernie fit? Many of the Women’s March leaders had been prominent Bernie supporters in 2016, but many others were of course supporters of Hillary Clinton. Among a portion of her supporters, there was still a deep and abiding anger aimed at Bernie. They blamed him for losing the 2016 election, as did Hillary herself.
Now Bernie had to figure out where he fit into the party with Trump as president. It would mean working with people who had been a part of his movement as well as those who were deeply enmeshed in Hillary Clinton’s world. Bernie’s speech following Donald Trump’s address was Bernie’s first foray into positioning himself as a leader of the resistance.
In his office, Bernie began to rehearse the speech, making changes along the way. The process was slow-moving, and the minutes ticked by. We needed to head up to the television studio. Another staff member poked his head in and asked if Bernie was ready. “No,” he barked. He needed more time. But a few minutes later, he recognized he had to go. Bernie, in his usual refrain, looked at Warren Gunnels and me and said, “I wish I had more time.”
In the studio, the speech was already loaded in the teleprompter. Bernie sat down and proceeded to give the perfect version of his speech, like a great athlete rising to the occasion in a crucial moment. Nearly 10 million people watched Bernie’s livestream that evening—a staggering number, well beyond even our rosiest expectations. For Bernie, this moment indicated that he had a new medium through which to get the word out. Leaving the studio, Jane kissed him. “See, guys. That is what you get when you give a good speech,” Bernie said as we triumphantly headed back to the office. Jane’s performance reviews were critical to Bernie. She was his biggest supporter, but also would deliver a blunt and honest assessment of his performance. If he hadn’t done well, she would have let him know. Having seen Bernie speak thousands of times over the years, she also was one of his best judges—certainly the person whose views he took most seriously on this question (and every other).
At one point in working for Bernie, it occurred to me that he would have rather been a media mogul instead of a politician. This may sound odd, given his dim view of much of American media. But while his brief career making educational filmstrips ended when he became mayor of Burlington, he remained obsessed with the power of television and other media. As mayor of Burlington, he hosted a cable access show. During the 2020 campaign, Politico paid to digitize the program’s entire run so a historical record would be available. Politico was, of course, primarily trolling for embarrassing clips. While the production quality was not high, you can see a Mayor Sanders becoming Bernie, doing what he loved to do. He held conversations with real people, whether they were elementary school kids, small business owners, or punks hanging out at the local mall. Bernie is fundamentally a storyteller who is at his best when explaining complex problems and helping other people tell their own stories. That is what his TV show focused on. But now there was more to be done than TV shows.
From the livestream Bernie did on the day of Donald Trump’s budget address, we started producing a raft of videos and other content out of the Senate office. It was around that time that Armand Aviram joined Bernie’s Senate office. A huge Bernie supporter, Armand came to the office from NowThis, where he pioneered the techniques used to make viral political videos. Armand has no formal training in shooting or editing, but he had a real sense of what people on the internet like to watch and, more importantly, share, and he would skillfully hone Bernie’s message in these online videos.
Bernie Sanders had always dreamed about having a television network, and now he saw it manifest before his eyes. After a suggestion to a network anchor that they do a roundtable on Medicare for All was ignored, Bernie decided to produce his own town hall, which more than one million people tuned into. This became a regular occurrence, as we put on town halls on a variety of topics, from income and wealth inequality to foreign policy, with guests ranging from Michael Moore to Elizabeth Warren to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Bernie treated these like television programs, and often we had a live audience of as many as 400 people, with millions more watching online. The shows demonstrated to him the power of livestreaming, and our staff acquired expertise in producing such events once the campaign began.
Bernie’s only disappointment was that other Democratic offices weren’t emulating what he was doing. We were stretching the boundaries of what a Senate office could do to communicate with the American people. Bernie hoped that other members of his caucus would see this as a new way to communicate with their constituents and the American people. It doesn’t seem like anyone did.
In 2017, as our online presence grew, Bernie took a personal interest in the distribution strategy behind our videos. He spent time each week thinking about the content he wanted to create and how many people were tuning in. At one point, we began to notice weird traffic patterns, with spikes and drops on Facebook that were seemingly unrelated to any obvious factors. Facebook was apparently out of sync with other social media platforms. While our audiences on other platforms were growing, all of a sudden people stopped “liking” our Facebook page. We quickly realized that the social network had changed its algorithm and was no longer serving our content. Later on, we recognized this happened to nearly all progressive outlets. The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported in October 2020 that Facebook had intentionally adjusted their algorithm to the benefit of conservative outlets over progressive ones.6
Bernie demanded a series of meetings with Facebook executives. One involved a sit-down with Adam Mosseri, the head of Facebook’s newsfeed (and soon to become head of Instagram). He also had a phone call with the company’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg. On the call, which took place in 2018, Sandberg was oddly obsequious, talking about how much she admired Bernie and inviting him to join her for coffee in Northern California. In these meetings and in public forums, the company always denied that it was doing anything to restrict progressive content, and that it was just serving its customers as best it could. During the meeting with Mosseri, it was revealed that Facebook had changed a setting on its back end that essentially shut off the pipeline of new subscribers to Bernie’s page. They could not come up with a reasonable explanation for the changed setting.
“The most junior Facebook employee in the room tried to make the case to me and other Bernie staff that we should shape his policy messaging around what Facebook thought would work on that platform.”
In the fall of 2018, during the lead-up to the election, we noticed a flurry of Facebook pages running ads claiming Bernie was encouraging people to vote against Democratic candidates in swing House districts. Believing these ads were violations of the company’s policies, we filed a complaint. The ads were initially taken down, but then they were put back up a few days before the election. A reporter from Vice looked into the ads’ origins but when he went to the listed address of the company that produced them, he found that the group that claimed to be running the ads did not exist there: according to the building superintendent, there was no tenant in the building that fit the description.7 Even when presented with this information, Facebook claimed the ads were legitimate and refused to take them down.
At a post-election meeting with Facebook in his Senate office, Bernie pressed Facebook representatives about how the company was making content decisions. A mid-level lobbyist told him he should be running specific types of content on particular subjects, perhaps changing how he talked about climate change or more prominently featuring AOC. Bernie asked if Facebook thought it should determine how he should communicate with his constituents. The Facebook staff said yes. Actually, as they saw it, it would be more effective for senators to simply outsource their constituent communications strategy to Facebook, which would decide who would receive his messages. Bernie got up and left the meeting at that point, leaving staff to talk.
The most junior Facebook employee in the room tried to make the case to me and other Bernie staff that we should shape his policy messaging around what Facebook thought would work on that platform. When we responded that that wasn’t going to happen, she replied, “That’s because your boss is a miserable old coot.” I immediately asked the Facebook representatives to leave and never come back. In apologizing, the staff member then said, “I used to work for Chuck Schumer. I think he is a miserable old coot too.”
This level of ego was what Bernie despised about the company. Yet we were also dependent on Facebook. Our campaign needed Facebook to communicate our message, even as they ultimately were trying to stand in our way. While we fully grasped the potency of social media platforms—they had the ability to stream hundreds of millions of views to the American people—Bernie saw something else: the ability for real people to use him as a vehicle to share their stories.
Excerpted from The Fighting Soul: On the Road with Bernie Sanders by Ari Rabin-Havt. Copyright © 2022 by Ari Rabin-Havt. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-facebook-took-away-bernie-sanders-hopes-and-dreams?source=articles&via=rss How Facebook Took Away Bernie Sanders’ Hopes and Dreams