Bernie Sanders Built A Legion Of Meme-making, Tiktok-loving Online Fans. Now They’re Pivoting To New Socialist Goals.

During his two presidential campaigns, Senator Bernie Bernie Sanders Sanders amassed a huge, meme-driven online following that rivals only Trump’s as a national candidate, especially on platforms like Reddit and TikTok.The Sanders fandom, comprised largely Bernie Sanders of younger eligible voters and online socialism enthusiasts, is still there – but without a viable presidential candidate to rally behind, online leaders are shifting focus.Some “#Bernie2020” TikTokers are leaning away from politics now that he’s out, while subreddits like “r/SandersForPresident” are supporting downticket candidates and considering forming a PAC.Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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When it came to online campaigning, Senator Bernie Sanders won the 2020 meme race. But his vast fandom on social media didn’t translate to primary victory, and the Democratic Socialist announced he was suspending his campaign on Wednesday, leaving former Vice President Joe Biden as the only viable Democratic candidate. 

Despite having two unsuccessful presidential bids, Sanders’ ideas and momentum, particularly among Gen Z and millennials, influenced the Democratic Party as a whole. Setting a new tone for progressive politics, the Vermont senator gave ideas like a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and tuition-free college more name recognition and support – or, as his young fans would call it, clout. 

The 78-year-old couldn’t identify what an app was when The New York Times asked him about his own technological preferences, but compared to every other presidential candidate over the past five years, he had the biggest online following, or fandom – besides President Donald Trump.

The sway the two candidates have had in meme culture and on platforms like TikTok and Reddit are comparable, and Trump’s online meme-makers and defenders definitively had a role in electing him president.

It’s unclear what Bernie Sanders internet-driven Trump supporters would have done had he not won the 2016 election, but the leaders of online Sanders communities like “r/SandersForPresident” have a plan to mobilize the people behind the 50 million pageviews their forum got just last month, even if the candidate they fought for isn’t in the race any longer. 

“Basically, we’re going to focus on down ballot races, not the presidential race, and progressive policies-slash-ideas. We’re gonna use what media power we have to guide the subreddit in that direction,” Kevin Moore, director of operations for the “r/SandersForPresident” moderating team and previously a top Reddit social media manager, told Business Insider. 

“We’ve probably talked about that even like six months ago. You don’t project that to the community like ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing this,’ because it’s like a loser mentality. But that’s been the plan for quite some time.”

Sanders supporters are disproportionately represented on Reddit, where socialist communities are now pivoting down-ticket

Reddit is the 19th-most visited website on the internet as of August 2019, according to a report created by Amazon. Twitter, in comparison, is the 38th-most visited website. Reddit’s users are two-thirds male and two-thirds under the age of 29, with more Bernie Sanders than half being US citizens. Overwhelmingly, its users favor either Sanders or Trump, based on the size of the dominant subreddits for each 2020 presidential candidate.

On “r/SandersForPresident,” the largest Sanders subreddit, more than 510,000 users are subscribed to the forum’s feed. According to Moore, the actual reach of the subreddit is much larger, with 6 million monthly active users. 

Besides just hosting dicussion about Sanders-related news, campaigning, and Democratic Socialist ideas in general, it was also a major fundraising platform for the candidate and it actively recruited members to volunteer for Sanders’ campaign. Moore, who can spend up to five or six hours a day moderating, says based on his usual social media consulting fees, he gave $200,000 of his labor to the Sanders campaign via the subreddit. 

“Bernie obviously has a great deal of appeal to younger people, and Reddit has a user base that skews younger than, like, Facebook, per say,” Moore said. “Combined with how Reddit works in general, it’s easy for regular people like me or you to have a voice there. Quite frankly, the working class is on there.”

The day that Sanders suspended his campaign, Reddit’s unofficial drama historian, “r/SubredditDrama,” cataloged how the platform reacted to the news as a whole. Both “r/SandersForPresident” and the second-largest Sanders subreddit, “r/OurPresident,” briefly suspended posting and locked comment sections under announcement posts. 

In terms of immediate reactions, megathreads on non-specific political forums like “r/politics” devolved into controversy over whether Sanders supporters were going to rally behind Biden or not. 

But the moderators of “r/SandersForPresident” had planned to cast a wider net than just the 2020 presidential election for months, Moore told Business Insider, and the group is refocusing its efforts on down-ticket races for Democratic socialist candidates. It may even start a PAC, although “that is currently in the ‘idea’ phase.”

“In my experience, what happens when you have a community large enough and have enough passion, which we undoubtedly have, is that they will in turn organize themselves and new behavior will emerge,” Moore said. “Our job as moderators is to feed into the emergent behavior and help create structure that generates more of it. No doubt, it’s not a happy day, but I’m not particularly worried about the subreddit or the progressive movement in general.”

Many TikTok users can’t vote yet, but the Gen Z-favored app was full of Sanders support that’s now dwindling without his candidacy

While Redditors overwhelmingly favored Sanders among Democratic candidates, Reddit is far more skewed to a subset of the American population that’s white and male than other social media platforms where pro-Sanders sentiment took hold. One of those is TikTok, and while the short-form video platform is stereotyped as a place for teenagers and children, it’s biggest age demographic straddles the voting age, with 46% of its users falling between ages 16 and 24.

It’s also, similar to Reddit, less engineered to serve you content that your friends suggest, via resharing tools. TikTok uses a complex algorithm to serve up a never-ending stream of videos tailored to your interests, including political bias, based on what types of videos you interact with the most. 

The number of Sanders supporters on TikTok is less quantifiable than Reddit, but popular trends like “#barbzforbernie” and memes likeTwitchstreamer Neekolul’s “ok, boomer” TikTok – which features her wearing a “Bernie” t-shirt and using the hashtag “#bernie2020” – reflect a pro-meme, pro-Sanders Bernie Sanders environment on the app.

The “#barbzforbernie” creator, who pushed dual support for both Nicki Minaj and Sanders, made a TikTok in the wake of the Sanders’ campaign. In TikTok meme fashion, it features his heartbroken expression juxtaposed over a screenshot of the Twitter Moment announcing the campaign’s suspension, while “Pills N Potions” by Minaj plays.

“Bernie ended his campaign but that doesn’t mean #barbzforbernie will ever stop supporting him, we all love you @bernie,” the caption reads. 

But it’s hard to imagine that viral figures who devoted their TikTok presences to Sanders have the pivot-potential like”r/SandersForPresident” to turn their prominence into a different type of political movement.

TikTok barely has the infrastructure to promote a legible conversation between users, opting instead for an environment focused on virality and self-expression over anything else, and most users on the platform have become adept at creating content catering to that mindset.  

Neekolul, for example, drew over 30 million views to her Sanders promotion, but in an interview with Kotaku, which profiled her rise to Twitch fame, she focused more on how that viral moment built her own brand, rather than made her into a Sanders-driven or socialist campaigner. 

“He’s without a doubt motivated new generations of voters, and I think the covid-19 situation has definitely helped drive home the importance of his Medicare for All platform. It’s a sad time for a lot of us supporters, but I think there’s still hope for many of us who are younger to make a change with future elections,” she wrote in an email to Kotaku after Sanders announced his campaign’s suspension. 

There are dedicated socialist corners on TikTok, though, and some of them are already pushing the conversation forward. 26-year-old Democratic Socialist congressional candidate Joshua Collins has a dedicated pro-Sanders TikTok presence, and he’s already posted videos asking his followers whether they’ll vote for Biden. 

“So people wanna know how I feel about Bernie Sanders dropping out,” he said in another TikTok. “The short answer? Unsurprised. People were risking their lives to go out and vote for this man. He couldn’t have that on his conscience.”

Collins, unlike Sanders, is a young candidate who actually uses the platforms, where Democratic Socialism is popular, to campaign for himself. He’s the kind of future down-ticket candidate that “r/SandersForPresident” might decide to endorse in the coming days and weeks. He’s also not nearly as popular on TikTok as people like Neekolul, but his ideal target audience is Washington state’s 10th district, as opposed to Twitch’s global audience. 

“The Democratic Party basically held his supporters and their families and their communities hostage, and rather than let his supporters continue contracting coronavirus just to vote for him, he dropped out,” Collins continued on to say in his TikTok. “Do I think it was the right move? I don’t know. Does it f—ing suck? Yeah. Am I dropping out? No. I’m in a state with all mail-in ballots and we have a really good chance of winning.”

Read more:Bernie Sanders is winning the 2020 meme race, but can internet fandom get him elected?Bernie Sanders vows to stay on upcoming ballots and continue to gather delegates so he can ‘exert significant influence over the party platform’Bernie Sanders influenced US politics more than any other failed presidential candidate in the country’s historyBernie Sanders just ended his presidential bid. Here’s what we know about the finances of one of the least wealthy US senators, who’s made $1.75 million in book royalties.

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