The live stream of that pivotal October event racked up 600,000 views on Facebook alone. Now, it’s been viewed more than a million times across multiple platforms.
The popularity of the clip was hardly random. It was the handiwork of Mia Fermindoza, the 28-year-old video director for the Sanders campaign, whose job is to ensure that every public appearance made by the Democratic presidential candidate is streamed live on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Twitch.
“We have a principal, a star talent,” Fermindoza, a former producer at the video site NowThis, said of the 78-year-old independent who boasts of buying his clothes at Kohl’s. “Our job is just to make sure that Bernie always has the ability to talk to people without having to rely on the media logic of the mainstream.”
As Sanders seeks to reinvigorate his presidential campaign against a largely unified Democratic establishment, he will tap a political resource unlike any other in Democratic politics — a far-reaching universe of podcasts, YouTube channels, subreddits, Facebook groups and digital newsletters.
This unfiltered online megaphone, which channels distrust of the political mainstream, gives Sanders an edge as he seeks another rebound moment for his campaign. It offers a chance to encourage new voters to turn out in upcoming primaries and to amplify his attacks on former vice president Joe Biden.
No other Democrat exercises the same kind of power online. The candidates who competed in the nominating contest’s four early states collectively garnered about 57 million views on Facebook live streams over the past year. Sanders is responsible for 54 million of them, according to an analysis conducted by his campaign using CrowdTangle, a social media tracking tool.
The online machinery, designed by a staff filled with veterans of liberal news sites and experts in online messaging, has helped Sanders cultivate a mass following — including in California, which accounts for an outsize share of the online views tracked by his campaign and delivered him an important primary win this week.
“If you’re truly a grass roots operation, you have to speak directly to your supporters as frequently as you can and also solicit their input into how the campaign should go,” said Faiz Shakir, the senator’s campaign manager, who gained prominence in the liberal movement as a writer for the news website ThinkProgress. “The Internet has colored and influenced us in every which way.”
The strategy could also position Sanders powerfully against President Trump, who has a vast online following of his own and who shares the senator’s instinct to use the mainstream media as a foil.
Sanders has been honing the technique for 40 years.
“The day after I was elected mayor,” he said in the late 1980s, on an episode of “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” a public-access television show he created as mayor of Burlington, Vt., “I said to some of my colleagues, ‘We can’t survive. We’re going to have to develop our own media.’ ”
Outfoxing the media has been central to the democratic socialist’s political program since his first days in public life.
“When you’re a politician dealing with the media, life is difficult,” Sanders wrote in “Outsider in the House,” his 1997 autobiography. “If you’re getting screwed by the media, you don’t have much recourse. Who can you complain to? They own the camera. They print the news.”
His recourse during his first mayoral bid, in 1981, was to print his own newspaper — “a little handout, maybe four pages, with all of his platforms on it,” recalled Linda Niedweske, who helped run the campaign, which toppled a Democratic incumbent and drew the attention of the national media.
After taking over at City Hall, Sanders gained access to the long-running WJOY-AM morning radio show, “The Mayor Speaks,” which he renamed “The People Speak,” according to Vermont media reports at the time.
When it was taken off the air, he turned to the screen, approaching Lauren-Glenn Davitian of Chittenden Community Television, which had just secured funding for public-access television in a handful of Vermont communities. One of them was Burlington.
Beginning in 1986, Sanders starred in “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” which aired on Channel 15 during a boom period for daytime talk, captured by the rise of Oprah Winfrey.
In grainy videos now archived on CCTV’s website, Sanders interviews his police chief. He sits on a horse. He lectures middle-school students about racism in America. He asks punk rockers why they wear all black.
Thirty years before former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) put his dental appointment on Instagram Live, Sanders effectively turned the cameras on his work as a municipal manager, even as he warned about the pernicious effect of TV. “Television is the major drug problem in America today,” he said in one episode, asking, “Where are the stories talking about what money and greed and vulgarity do to us?”
The logic at the time was that if you don’t like it, hijack it or create an alternative. And that has remained his aim ever since.
In 2009, he complained to Robert Greenwald of the nonprofit Brave New Films that he couldn’t get on the Sunday news and political talk shows, Greenwald recalled in an interview. The senator felt he was being shut out of such programs as ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
So Brave New Films partnered with his office to produce weekly Web videos, called “Sanders Unfiltered.” The first episode was titled “America’s Class Crisis.”
Davitian likened the strategy to the development of Allied propaganda during the Second World War, necessary to combat the Nazi war machine.
“It’s a tool for democratic mobilization,” said Davitian, who is still CCTV’s executive director. “That’s why we started public-access TV. That was the idea that Bernie understood. In order to build a community based on democratic principles, it’s important to be able to tell your own story.”
Greenwald shied away from calling it propaganda. Sanders, he said, hews to standards of truth and evidence-based argument. And while the brash democratic socialist frequently upbraids the media, Greenwald added, he does not do so in personal terms.
Still, the senator’s critique of the media has come close to conspiracy theorizing. He has acknowledged as much.
“I’m not trying to sell you a conspiracy theory,” he wrote in his 1997 autobiography. “I doubt that Michael Eisner (or Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner) decides what specific items will be aired on an evening news broadcast. Still, there is a convergence. Big money interests own the media. The media plays an enormous role in shaping our view of reality.”
The senator had a proposition.
It was late 2017, and he had just introduced a bill in the Senate to set up a single-payer health insurance program.
He wanted to have a discussion about “Medicare-for-all” on live TV, so his staff approached a major network, and Sanders got on the phone with one of its anchors, according to multiple aides involved in the plans who declined to name the person to avoid alienating the network.
When they didn’t hear back, the senator asked his aides if they could produce the show themselves.
That’s what they did, partnering with a trio of digital outlets — “The Young Turks,” the popular online news show founded by Cenk Uygur, as well as NowThis News and the digital media firm ATTN — to host health-care experts in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Congressional Auditorium in January 2018 and to stream the conversation live.
More than a million people tuned in, as a news release noted, “rivaling the viewership of cable news in primetime.”
From then on, Sanders had a directive for his staff — to live-stream every event. Additional town halls that year focused on topics ranging from inequality to foreign policy.
When his second presidential campaign got underway about a year later, he began building out the infrastructure to run his own in-house digital media operation.
One of Shakir’s first calls, before he was formally on the job, was to Fermindoza, who was managing and producing live original shows at NowThis, a media start-up specializing in short videos for social platforms.
She describes the introduction of live video on Facebook in 2016 as like “breaching the Hoover Dam” in terms of online views. When BuzzFeed got 800,000 people to watch a video of an exploding watermelon, the company’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, said it was “the first time we’ve had a number comparable to live TV.”
The question was whether medical debt or wealth inequality could gain similar traction.
Sanders was willing to bet on it.
The live videos his campaign produces — sometimes four of them a day — range from boisterous rallies to intimate town halls. Many take on a confessional quality, as the candidate urges attendees to open up about their hardships, sometimes directing them, like a film director, to face the camera or speak into the microphone.
At an autumn event in Iowa, after a voter described being unable to visit a doctor when she was sick, Sanders told her that “the story that you are telling in one form or another is being experienced by millions and millions of people.”
By turning his campaign into a live show, Sanders is striving to prove his point about common experience to an increasingly atomized society, said Howie Klein, a record executive and liberal blogger who runs the Blue America PAC. The senator wants people to know they’re not alone — not alone in facing misfortune, but also not alone in backing his campaign. An on-screen graphic recently added to the live streams, displaying the names of donors, shows who else is “feeling the Bern.”
“I’m counting on the live streams to take him into the White House,” Klein said.
Fermindoza runs the show from a makeshift control room adjacent to the campaign’s studio. She has two cameramen in the field with Sanders at all times, one responsible for a head-on shot — occupying the best space on the risers, to the chagrin of network embeds — and the other at a different angle.
When an event ends, she texts statistics to someone on the road with Sanders — often Ari Rabin-Havt, his deputy campaign manager.
“It’s surprising that other campaigns haven’t done what we’ve done,” Rabin-Havt said. “The resources we put in are tiny, and the rewards are huge.”
And Sanders knows it. Aides say one of the candidate’s first questions when he exits the stage is how many views the live stream garnered.
Sanders’s online influence comes into sharpest relief when his supporters believe his back is against the wall.
The day after his disappointing finish on Super Tuesday, his campaign gained a record 87.7 million impressions on Twitter. A video of his remarks on the day’s results — in which Sanders said his campaign was the target of “venom that we’re seeing from some in the corporate media” — has been viewed more than 500,000 times on Facebook.
That sense, that Sanders is not getting a fair shake from the most powerful news organizations in the country, has driven his supporters to new outlets building their brands on the same populist forces elevating the senator.
These independent outlets have become as central to the campaign’s communications strategy as is its own original content.
“We knew that because establishment media tends to be dismissive toward our campaign, we had to seek out alternative media,” said Shakir, the campaign manager.
Many Sanders backers, for instance, may not have been watching MSNBC last month when Chris Matthews likened the senator’s victory in the Nevada caucuses to the Nazi takeover of France. But they heard about the comparison when they tuned into “Rising” with the Hill’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, figures from the populist left and the populist right, respectively. Ball featured Matthews in her monologue about the “stages of grief” traveled by anchors on MSNBC, whom she portrayed as mourning Sanders’s success in Nevada.
The online news show, launched in 2018, has become a popular destination for supporters of Sanders, who appeared on the show last year.
“It’s important to recognize that the alternative view represented on our show or Joe Rogan’s is actually the majority view,” Ball said in an interview, referring to “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, which the host — who endorsed Sanders — says is downloaded 190 million times each month. Ball added, citing an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from last year, that “70 percent of Americans are disgusted and angry with both political establishments.”
Resentment against the media also shapes the worldview of Sanders’s inner circle. The candidate’s wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, is among those involved in monitoring coverage and alerting Sanders about negative treatment, Shakir said. The comments from Matthews so aggrieved Sanders that Shakir complained to Phil Griffin, the president of the cable news channel. The host apologized, and, a week later, he announced his retirement following a string of controversial comments.
Media watchdog is a natural posture for the campaign’s senior staff, said Rabin-Havt, the deputy campaign manager, who described top advisers as “communicators of a progressive message who came up native to the Internet.”
He worked at Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, and as a Sirius XM radio host. Shakir was at ThinkProgress. David Sirota, a speechwriter for Sanders, is a former journalist and now the campaign’s most outspoken critic of the media.
“That imbues our campaign with a particular way of communicating,” Rabin-Havt said.
It also involves devolving a significant amount of power to supporters, who use the Internet to speak on behalf of the campaign in a way that other mediums do not allow. That transfer of authority has been a delicate line for the campaign to walk, as severe missteps by supporters — and, in a few cases, staff — have fueled criticism of Sanders and his movement.
Whether the campaign bends to the criticism, or embraces its online juggernaut, warts and all, has become an acute question as Sanders decides what tack to take in slowing Biden.
“The campaign’s political project and its communications project are integrated,” said Sam Seder, an MSNBC contributor and host of “The Majority Report” podcast. “Within the Sanders campaign, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, more power has been handed out, including online, to people who have not been heard in our society.”