Something appears fishy with WayOfTheBern, a prominent Reddit page dedicated to advancing the prospects of Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, according to experts who track political social media.
The second-largest Sanders fan page on the massive social media platform sometimes acts like a foreign trolling operation, they say, exposing its 24,000 members to the same pro-Moscow and American dissension stories associated with other fringe sites and suspect social media accounts, say experts who have studied the page.
“I consider it extremely suspicious,” said Josh Russell, a prominent analyst on social media politics who tweets about it as @Josh_Emerson. Mr. Russell thinks it more likely that WayOfTheBern is a false flag run by alt-right people than Russia, although he said the patterns of posts are quite similar.
“I don’t think these people give a rat’s ass about Bernie Sanders,” he said. “This is designed to divide Democrats.”
Reddit is a massive online message board, with more than a million forums, or “subreddits,” dedicated to a variety of topics, including popular culture, cooking, politics and pornography.
WayOfTheBern, started in 2016 as an alternative to the main SandersForPresident subreddit, remained faithful to its hero even after he lost the Democratic nomination that year. Now, as the Vermont independent ponders another presidential run, the forum is still committed, though it has added Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who announced her presidential bid last month.
The subreddit targets nearly every other potential candidate.
“We’ve seen large amounts of what we call ‘troll-bots,’ and a significant number of these accounts pushing Bernie and Gabbard,” said Christopher Bouzy of BotSentinel.com, which closely tracks political social media and has been a longtime critic of WayOfTheBern. “We do believe many of them are coming from foreign entities, particularly Russia or the Middle East.”
The critical mass of Twitter accounts that mimic WayOfTheBern by praising Mr. Sanders and savaging other top Democrats all point to a coordinated activity of the sort Mr. Sanders has decried, Mr. Bouzy noted.
“We see more of this promoting him, and while they attack [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren and [Sen. Kamala D.] Harris, they don’t attack Bernie,” he said. “The anti-Bernie traffic is almost nonexistent, and usually this is part of a bigger conspiracy.”
Mr. Sanders’ press team did not respond to questions.
But a moderator for the subreddit, FThumb, insists WayOfTheBern is what it says it is: a site dedicated to progressive politics that favors Mr. Sanders as the best candidate to advance them.
He is familiar with the Russia accusations.
“I tend to think there’s a certain amount of projection out there — ‘we’re bots,’ ‘we can’t be organic’ — but we’re probably as organic as it gets,” said FThumb, who asked that he be identified by his moderator name.
Like some others involved with social media devoted to Mr. Sanders, FThumb said the tendency to see Russian interference into everything is a new form of McCarthyism.
“For hundreds of years we hunted witches,” he said. “Now it’s the Russians. They just want to find a bogeyman.”
The posts on WayOfTheBern consistently support positions that would be amenable to the Kremlin, however, and are quick to attack those who aggressively criticize Moscow, as those opposed to Mr. Sanders’ presidential hopes and suspicious of the subreddit’s provenance note.
On Tuesday, for example, a pair of posts trumpeted that the Senate Intelligence Committee hadn’t found any direct evidence of collusion with Russia during the 2016 elections.
“Discuss! Senate: No evidence of Russian collusion,” posted one while almost simultaneously another poster linked to the same NBC News story, writing, “Senate has uncovered no direct evidence of conspiracy between Trump campaign and Russia.”
Meanwhile, numerous posts this week sought to prop up the resurgent left-wing of the Democratic Party while knocking “corporate Democrats. Others took shots at Ms. Warren and another Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
WayOfTheBern posters also have worked hard recently defending Democrats accused of anti-Semitic statements and criticizing those who have pointed to the failure of socialism in Venezuela.
“The story I see is one of the largest subreddits supporting Bernie Sanders has unexplained strange activity,” Mr. Bouzy said. “In my opinion, the fact someone is manipulating the subreddit is newsworthy by itself.”
Mr. Sanders’ critics also say he has a curious voting pattern when it comes to Russia, missing one key vote earlier this year, and standing out as just one of two senators who voted against a new package of sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea in 2017. Mr. Sanders has said his vote was meant to signal opposition to the Iranian sanctions, not the ones on Russia.
FThumb, a Sanders voter, said he didn’t know what to make of that voting pattern but said, in general, he is “skeptical of most narratives.”
Mr. Sanders, though not officially connected to WayOfTheBern, has given it an imprimatur of sorts. FThumb said the subreddit once hosted an “Ask Me Anything” forum with Levi Sanders, the senator’s son.
Yet the sort of activity that comprises WayOfTheBern has drawn criticism from Mr. Sanders in the past.
“What the Russians did in the 2016 election cycle deserves unconditional condemnation,” he tweeted last year. “That includes all of their conduct — whether it was active support of any candidate or active opposition to any candidate.”
Social media experts aren’t sure what, exactly, Mr. Sanders or other politicians should do in situations like that involving WayOfTheBern. For one thing, it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint the origin of accounts, and a politician doesn’t want to anger legitimate supporters.
There’s also nothing criminal about such activity, and First Amendment protections make it hard to curtail posts and tweets.
Yet with such a large community associated with Mr. Sanders having such dubious provenance, and engaged in the identical sort of activity that he and other Democrats have so vigorously crusaded against, it seems odd that neither he nor his people have warned people about the Reddit site.
Mr. Sanders’ 2016 campaign did have to deal with phony Facebook pages that employed similar tactics.
“Of course, they know,” Mr. Russell said. “His campaign should definitely be aware of these things, and we know that nefarious things might be happening.”