As a card-carrying member of the Brotherhood of Bernard, I’m sorry to say that Bernie Sanders’s digital media empire is built on a house of lies. In the past three years, several news outlets — including multiple generally Sanders-skeptical ones — have breathlessly touted the impressive digital media operation and following of the senator, who yesterday announced that he will run for president again in 2020. Here’s Politico:
They’ve allowed Sanders to bypass traditional media and, when it comes to audience size, sometimes surpass it….CrowdTangle data recently compiled by a person close to the Sanders campaign also underscores his social media muscle compared with other presidential hopefuls: Sanders’ videos had nearly 1.5 billion views in 2017 and 2018 on Facebook — almost three times more than all other potential 2020 Democratic candidates’ videos combined, according to the report.
Clearly Bernie is happy to feed into the hype. “The idea that we can do a town meeting which would get a significantly larger viewing audience than CNN at that time is something I would not have dreamed of in a million years, a few years ago,” he told New York magazine last year.
But this techno-optimism is at odds with Sanders’s most charming quality: his ability to stodgily dismiss obvious bullshit. Sanders has attacked Facebook before; that he takes the tech giant at its word when it’s saying what he wants to hear is either cynical, disconcerting, or both. The Sanders campaign obviously isn’t alone in humping Facebook and digital strategy — it wasn’t that long ago that the Obama campaign was celebrated for its digital wizardry. But while the Obama campaign’s youthful mastery of Facebook was a symbol of his cheerful technocratic approach; the Trump campaign’s cynical abuse of it revealed its society-destroying face. The appeal of Bernie Sanders is supposed to be that he knows what the world is actually like.
Brass tacks, though: The claim that Sanders’s social-media channels are outdrawing cable news can perhaps be compared to Donald Trump saying that having a Twitter account with millions of followers is “like owning the New York Times.” (Trump’s main Twitter account has 58 million followers to Sanders’s nine million. Sanders’s two Facebook accounts have a combined 12 million followers, while Trump has about 25 million. Both massively outnumber every other 2020 contender.)
The appeal of Bernie Sanders is supposed to be that he knows what the world is actually like.
While it’s true that Trump rarely speaks to the American people through press conferences or interviews, the idea that his digital apparatus is what’s reaching his supporters and not causing an avalanche of minute, meaningless news stories is ridiculous. Trump received so much TV coverage during the 2016 campaign that it would have cost $5 billion if he bought it as advertising.
Are Bernie’s Facebook Live town halls on health care and inequality really drawing between one and two million live viewers, and double that on replay? If this claim, based on Facebook view counts and repeated by Sanders’s office and the pliant media, is true, then Sanders’s content is performing better than regular-season NBA games, which have been averaging about 1.25 million viewers on cable this season. (It should be noted here that TV ratings are also calculated in archaic and questionable ways — Nielsen, a private company, gives 40,000 or so Americans devices to attach to their TVs, and then attempts to extrapolate that to the number of people in the country watching a given minute of a given TV show.)
There are a few reasons to doubt this. Remember that damn watermelon? Even when Facebook’s numbers were being taken at relative face value, it was still clear that, as Gawker reported in 2016, internet video views are a 100-percent bullshit metric:
If BuzzFeed’s watermelon video had been measured the way a TV show is, its viewership would’ve been closer to zero than the 807,000 it trumpeted to advertisers. Viewership started off low and took 45 minutes to build to that 807,000, and few people watched the entire video; many tuned in for five or 10 minute blocks at the end. Facebook’s metrics also wildly inflate the number of people watching a given video, as they count somebody as a viewer once they have been watching for just three seconds, and by default Facebook videos autoplay as you scroll to them in your feed.
And this was before it was known that Facebook was inflating view counts to jack up advertising costs and then lying about it to advertisers. It’s in Facebook’s interest to convince the Sanders campaign that more people watched him interview Bill Nye than any episode of this season of The Good Place. Every dollar Sanders spends promoting a Facebook post or paying staffers to make Facebook content is one he’s not spending elsewhere, and every second he uploads there is free video for Mark Zuckerberg’s content maw. But the whole scam benefits the Sanders campaign too: he gets to tout these allegedly massive numbers as evidence of grassroots engagement.
If what the Sanders campaign says is true, his Facebook Live town halls are performing better than regular-season NBA games.
Even if Facebook wasn’t a shady purveyor of statistics and was conducting a good-faith effort to figure out how many human beings are actually watching its content, such an effort would be nearly impossible: at least half of internet traffic, and maybe way more, is fake. As New York magazine put it in the best-case scenario for Facebook’s monster view counts: “real videos, real people, fake minutes.”
(If you want to just dismiss all this as another entry in the shockingly expansive genre of blog posts trying to claim that Bernie Sanders is bad at math — which you shouldn’t because unlike those other posts, this one is right about the math — you can do that and still have extreme compunction about the Sanders-Facebook symbiosis because Facebook is a creepy monolith that chronically lies to its users.)
Sanders is notorious for obsessing over his social media stats, a tendency that shows up in that New York profile of his digital operation:
“I would have thought that the fact that a Senate office put on a 90-minute town meeting that, we didn’t quite get to where MSNBC was — we were a few hundred thousand behind them, we were behind Fox — but a pretty solid performance, I would’ve thought somebody would say, ‘Mmm, that’s pretty interesting,” Sanders told me, standing and spreading his arms wide at the head of his long conference room table, as if he were back behind a campaign lectern. “What are the implications of that?”
The granular attention to television ratings is Trumpian; the credulous recitation of Facebook data is pure neoliberalism. I would love for Sanders to be the next president, and anything short of him committing a crime on Facebook Live won’t change that. And why let the bad guys have sole use of a superpower? Except for that same argument could be applied to accepting large donations and corporate money, and Sanders figured that one out. A future to believe in would be one without Facebook.