Last night, a number of Facebook groups organized by Bernie Sanders supporters were briefly (and somewhat mysteriously) suspended, prompting suspicion that the Hillary Clinton-allied super PAC Correct the Record, which last week announced a $1 million anti-troll effort called “Barrier Breakers” had gone on the offensive. Facebook attributed the suspension to an automated policy gone awry.
“A number of groups were inaccessible for a brief period after one of our automated policies was applied incorrectly,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement provided to Gawker. “We corrected the problem within hours and are working to improve our tools.” The spokesperson declined to clarify further on the record, or to offer examples of any groups other than those associated with Sanders supporters that were subject to the error.
Still, there is some evidence to suggest that the suspensions were triggered by a troll (or trolls) who posted offensive content in the Sanders groups. After a certain number of group members reported the content to Facebook, the groups themselves were suspended. “We had what looked like a kiddie porn posted in one of our groups today. I reported that one. Seriously made me want to vomit,” one woman told Heavy.com. Another group member, in a since-deleted comment, reported “a member who posted PORNO PICTURES (also a PEDOPHILE theme). I took a screenshot as a proof, which I won’t post for obvious reasons.”
According to a Gawker tipster, at least seven Sanders supporter groups—amounting to some 324,000 people (although many of those are surely members of more than one of the given groups)—were shut down. Screenshots taken by the blog U.S. Uncut show a Facebook user named Casey Champagne gloating about having successfully gotten a Sanders-supporter group suspended. Champagne’s account is no longer accessible, but his recent “likes” included the Facebook pages for Correct the Record and Barrier Breakers.
Champagne was also a member of the Clinton-supporters group, Bros 4 Hillary, which disavowed his actions in a statement. “Last night, a former member by the name of Casey Champagne decided to engage in harassing behavior toward Facebook groups of Bernie Sanders and posted about it in the B4H Facebook group,” the statement read.
“As stated above, this was not promoted or supported by the leadership of [Bros 4 Hillary], nor were we immediately aware of this conduct...This member acted on his own authority, is not apart of our leadership team, and does not represent our ideals or our opinions.”
Such behavior would, however, seem to represent the ideals of someone like Clinton-operative David Brock, who runs “strategic research and rapid response team” Correct the Record—as well as American Bridge 21st Century, and sits on the board of Priorities USA—and is known for his “shock-troop tactics.” (Among those tactics is stretching the limit of what campaign finance law allows: “What they are doing with Correct the Record is groundbreaking,” Paul Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, told the Times last fall. “It is creating new ways to undermine campaign regulation.”) Last week, the group announced that it would invest $1 million in a project called “Barrier Breakers,” addressing “anonymous online attacks, from both sides of the political spectrum.”
“Lessons learned from online engagement with “Bernie Bros” during the Democratic Primary will be applied to the rest of the primary season and general election,” Correct the Record said in a press release. “The task force currently combats online political harassment, having already addressed more than 5,000 individuals who have personally attacked Secretary Clinton on Twitter.”
On Monday night, Sanders supporters suggested that the Facebook groups’ suspension was the result of Barrier Breakers’ efforts. “The ‘online activist’ group Hillary’s super PAC hired (basically paid trolls) are striking tonight,” one unattributed, shareable statement making the rounds read.
But Correct the Record communications director Elizabeth Shappell denied any connection between the super PAC and last night’s suspensions. “Correct the Record’s Barrier Breakers 2016 had nothing to do with this,” she said in a statement provided to The Hill. “Currently, Barrier Breakers is exclusively engaged in positive messaging supporting Hillary Clinton.”
Brock did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment, and voice message left at a number associated with Champagne was not returned on Tuesday afternoon.