There’s a ton of sexism directed at Hillary Clinton online, but most of it isn’t coming from BernieBros

The depths of the Internet are a festering hellhole of racism, sexism and generalized harassment. Without the social constraints imposed via face-to-face communication and aided by the anonymity that many forums provide, people are free to say most if not all of the terrible things they are thinking.

Especially on Twitter, many of those terrible things are about politics, which means that a lot of garbage is directed at Hillary Clinton.

Since Clinton is currently in a primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, it’s sometimes simply assumed that online discourse in the context of the former Secretary of State is limited to supporters of one of the two Democratic candidates. This assumption is…faulty, to say the least.

To take one example, earlier this month John Lewis made news when he remarked that he never met Bernie Sanders during the Civil Rights movement, and was endorsing Hillary Clinton. Lewis, being a black man in the news, inevitably set Twitter abuzz with reams of racist drivel. Blue Nation Review writer Leela Daou, rightfully appalled at this racist drivel, compiled a collection of tweets in a post titled “NEW LOW: Civil Rights Legend John Lewis Getting Trolled by Bernie Supporters.”

See the problem?

Attributing these tweets to Bernie supporters and Bernie supporters alone was a massive stretch at best. The most egregiously racist tweets in Daou’s post were from users with account names “Milo Yiannopoulos” (a reference to the uber-conservative Gamergate icon who writes for Breitbart.com) and “RINO Hunter” (Twitter handle: @nvr2conservativ). It’s safe to say that these users aren’t democratic socialists. Most of the rest of the tweets in her post are from people defending Lewis from unnamed and un-cited accounts, which are nevertheless presented as being associated with people who will eventually cast a ballot for Bernie Sanders.

This isn’t to say that no Bernie supporters tweeted any bad tweets about John Lewis. This is to say that the evidence provided was remarkably thin, and was certainly insufficient to support the underlying assumption — repeated frequently — that a large and perhaps representative swath of Sanders’s supporters reflexively react to criticism of Sanders and support of Clinton with overt bigotry.

Today, an analysis published in the Washington Post blew a hole in that assumption. Using data collected from Twitter, researchers Rebekah Tromble and Dirk Hovy found that the overt sexism directed at Hillary Clinton is very real…but only 14.7% of the gendered terms directed at her are coming from people who can be identified as supporting Bernie Sanders. As one might imagine, the vast majority of the sexist vitriol directed at Clinton is coming from people who are politically conservative in general and supporters of Donald Trump in particular:

To be clear, as the analysis shows, there definitely are users who support Bernie Sanders and say sexist things about Hillary Clinton. There were also Clinton supporters in 2008 who said incredibly racist things about then-Senator Obama. By itself, as Glenn Greenwald has argued at length, this says more about the Internet than it says about the general sentiment of people who happen to be supporting particular presidential candidates. As the researchers note:

Hillary Clinton, via Wikimedia Commons

Hillary Clinton, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus, while we do find some evidence of Bernie Bros’ bad behavior, abuse against Clinton by Sanders supporters — both male and female —seems relatively limited. Clinton certainly faces a barrage of negativity and a heavy dose of sexism on Twitter. But that mostly appears to come from the right.

And though any and all instances of sexist slurs deserve condemnation, Sanders’ keyboard warriors accounted for just 89 such tweets during the New Hampshire primary. That is a mere 0.17 percent of all the tweets mentioning @HillaryClinton that we examined.

Sexist mob, indeed.

To be clear, this is only one snapshot of online discourse, looking at a specific type of communication on a specific medium using specific criteria during a limited timeframe. As Tromble and Hovy qualify, they only examined tweets directed at Hillary Clinton specifically — not Hillary Clinton’s supporters — which almost certainly leaves out much of the intra-ideological debate taking place between supporters of both candidates. That debate is often, for lack of a better term, extremely online. When someone supporting Hillary Clinton says that an individual supporting Bernie Sanders said something sexist or racist, I’m not about to tell them that they’re making up their personal experience.

Nevertheless, the plural of anecdote is not data. All too often, a small collection of disgusting tweets is taken as being representative of Sanders supporters as a whole. When the vast majority of those tweets aren’t even coming from Sanders supporters, that can’t even be called painting with a broad brush; it’s more like painting with the bucket.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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