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Why does the “BernieBro” myth persist? Because pundits don't understand how the Internet works

A misunderstanding of social media is driving media elites to keep pushing an easily disprovable stereotype

by Keith A. Spencer

Part 1

The nature of punditry makes it hard to tell which myths media personalities earnestly believe in, and which they perpetuate in bad faith. Consider the "welfare queen," a villainous trope popularized by Ronald Reagan in stump speeches in the 1970s, and which never actually existed. Despite being a clear fiction, the idea was tantalizing both to politicians and pundits, and hence the welfare queen became embedded in culture. Pundits and politicians today still invoke the racist caricature, often through dog-whistles.

Why do some myths persist, or remain uncorrected by the media, while others dissipate? The short answer seems to be that when they serve a media narrative, or play on existing stereotypes, they grow to possess a power that goes beyond fact or truth. To this list of indefatigable myths, one might add the pernicious "BernieBro" — so ubiquitous a concept that it has its own Wikipedia article. The self-explanatory neologism was coined by Robinson Meyer in an Atlantic article in 2015 before being distorted by the Twittersphere and the punditry — something that Meyer later came to regret, as he felt the term he reified suffered from "semantic drift.

But that was five years ago, before we had as much data on Sanders' support base — which, as it turns out, should be sufficient to debunk the stereotype that Sanders' support base consists entirely of a mythic tribe of entitled, pushy young millennial men. To wit: young women make up more of Sanders' base than men. He polls especially high with Hispanic voters, far more so than with white voters; Hispanic voters also donated more money to him than any other Democratic candidate. Polls consistently show that nonwhite voters prefer him over the other candidates. Notably, the demographic group that likes Sanders the least is white men.

Moreover, of all the candidates, Sanders has taken in the most money from women. Many of Sanders' female supporters bemoan how they are ignored by the mainstream press. "The 'Bernie Bro' narrative is endlessly galling because it erases the women who make up his base," writer Caitlin PenzeyMoog opined on Twitter. "To paint this picture of sexism is to paint over the millions of women who support Sanders. Do you see how f**ked up that is?

And yet. Even with all this demographic data on Bernie Sanders' support base, many intelligent pundits and politicians persist with the myth. How do they justify it? They just know, apparently. But specifically, they feel it on Twitter. 

Just one week ago, New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens published a column with the headline "Bernie's Angry Bros." The column did not contain a shred of the aforementioned demographic data about Sanders' support base, but rather was driven by a series of anecdotes supposedly proving his point about the irascible fans of the Vermont senator. Stephens' main evidence, aside from social media anecdotes, was a story about Sanders supporters getting angry during or after the 2016 Nevada caucuses, believing they had been rigged against their candidate. (The idea that people might grow angry at being disenfranchised is horrifying to Stephens, probably because he is a well-insulated upper-middle class pundit for whom political decisions have no real material impact on his life — unlike the people in Nevada he disparages.)

The Daily Dot has a long feature listing pundits who have helped perpetuate the BernieBro narrative long after demographics showed his support base to be a multiracial, working-class coalition. Hillary Clinton apparently still believes that Sanders is tailed by a horde of "online Bernie Bros" who issue "relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women," as she said in a Hollywood Reporter interview just last month. 

What could compel otherwise intelligent people to perpetuate a false and harmful narrative that essentializes Sanders supporters and erases their real and diverse identities? 

Again, the answer to that is Twitter. Specifically, how Twitter is understood by journalists and pundits, and how it is wielded by angry people online. 

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