On January 14 2020, Twitter user @TrinityMustache claimed that the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign hosted a “Bern the Witch” event attacking then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton:
Above official-looking Bernie 2016 letterhead and a painting of Hillary Clinton tied to a stake, @TrinityMustache wrote:
Bernie Sanders had a “Bern the Witch” event on his campaign web site complete with a poster of Hillary being burned at the stake. Am I surprised Bernie said women can’t win the presidency? No. We Hillary supporters went through this in 2016. We knew and we warned y’all #DemDebate
To understand the relevance of the claim from a 2020 perspective, some context is needed. One day prior to the January 14 2020 Democratic debate, CNN published a story about Sanders meeting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) with the headline, “Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren in private 2018 meeting that a woman can’t win, sources say.”
The article’s first few paragraphs described a private meeting between the two lawmakers and presidential candidates in 2018, and said of the headline’s claims:
[CNN’s] description of that meeting is based on the accounts of four people: two people Warren spoke with directly soon after the encounter, and two people familiar with the meeting.
It is unclear whether the item was amended or updated with additional details, but it continued with comment from both Warren and Sanders. Warren backed the claim, while Sanders denied it:
After publication of this story, Warren herself backed up this account of the meeting, saying in part in a statement Monday, “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”
That evening in 2018, Sanders expressed frustration at what he saw as a growing focus among Democrats on identity politics, according to one of the people familiar with the conversation. Warren told Sanders she disagreed with his assessment that a woman could not win, three of the four sources said.
Sanders denied the characterization of the meeting in a statement to CNN.
“It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win,” Sanders said. “It’s sad that, three weeks before the Iowa caucus and a year after that private conversation, staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened. What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”
On social media, political reporters and Sanders supporters shared videos of Sanders stating that a woman could indeed become president:
Video in the above tweet was from 1988. In 1987, Sanders said roughly the same thing to a classroom full of young children, lamenting an absence of women in politics:
Accompanying text read:
Bernie Sanders telling a class of 3rd graders in 1987 that women have as much right as men do to run for office. “It’s changing, but it’s not changing fast enough.”
Others pointed to Sanders’ relentless campaigning for former rival Hillary Clinton after the 2016 primary election, which was covered in a November 2016 New Yorker piece headlined, “Bernie Sanders’s Hard Fight for Hillary Clinton.” It concluded:
Since conceding defeat in the primaries, Sanders has been one of the real champions of this campaign … As Sanders finished his speech in Raleigh — “We have to do everything that we can to elect Secretary Clinton!” — Clinton and Pharrell were on their feet, cheering. “Wow!” Clinton said, when she took to the rostrum. “Whew! I gotta say, after hearing from these two extraordinary men, I feel all fired up and ready to go for the next five days!” She knew what it was like to run against Sanders. Having him on her side was “a lot more fun.” A few hours later, Sanders was off on his own to Iowa. Trump is ahead in that state, in the latest average of polls, by about two and a half points. Sanders had three events scheduled for Friday — Cedar Falls, Iowa City, Davenport. On Saturday, there would be more.
At the Debate, January 14 2020
During January 2020 Democratic presidential debate on CNN, a moderator asked Sanders about the claim. In his response, Sanders asserted he was involved with a movement to draft Warren to run for president in 2016, and that Warren declined to run. Sanders added that he only ran after Warren decided not to do so:
MODERATOR: Let’s now turn to — let’s now turn to an issue that’s come up in the last 48 hours. Sen. Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that — and Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?
SANDERS: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. And I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want. Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States.
Go to YouTube today. There’s a video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States. In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Sen. Warren. There was a movement to draft Sen. Warren to run for president. And you know what, I said — stayed back. Sen. Warren decided not to run, and I then — I did run afterwards.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States? And let me be very clear. If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination, I hope that’s not the case, I hope it’s me.
But if they do, I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.
MODERATOR: So Sen. Sanders — Sen. Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you’re saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?
SANDERS: That is correct.
Immediately after that, the same moderator posed a question to Warren:
[MODERATOR]: Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?
WARREN: I disagreed. Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. But, look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it’s time for us to attack it head-on.
‘Bern the Witch’ Claim
In the afternoon on January 14 2020, the aforementioned tweet claiming “Bernie Sanders had a ‘Bern the Witch’ event on his campaign web site complete with a poster of Hillary being burned at the stake” that received thousands of engagements on Twitter.
That claim appeared to originate with a March 11 2016 Reddit post to a subreddit called r/EnoughSandersSpam:
All archival links in the comments were no longer functional as of January 2020. A screenshot of the event also differed from the one used in the tweet referenced above, although both appeared to describe the same October 13 2015 event at a New Jersey pizzeria called Piezano’s.
The following version appeared in the original tweet:
In the Reddit thread, the wording was different, but the date and location were the same:
The original tweet claimed that Bernie Sanders had a “‘Bern the Witch’ event” on his website. However, both screenshots displayed URLs from when they were presumably live events. In addition to the October 13 2015 date, both were attached to a subdomain for “debate watch parties” — not official events.
One Reddit user objected:
Anyone can post an event on the campaign website. No chance in hell that the campaign approved it.
2016 Coverage of ‘Bern the Witch’ Rumor
We then searched for media coverage of the claim Sanders’ campaign. On March 11 2016, Mic.com reported that the screenshot first surfaced via the Reddit post above. That outlet noted that the “event” was actually a “debate watch party,” which had been created by Piezano’s owner to drum up business during the October 2015 debate:
Anyone can register a campaign event on Sanders’ website and that’s exactly what 39-year-old Joe Smith said he did a few months ago when he wanted to show his support for Sanders. Smith, the owner of Piezano’s Pizza Kitchen in Elizabeth, New Jersey, as the event description reads, told Mic around 30 people showed up to the viewing party, which he held in the restaurant’s dining room.
Very few mentions of the supposed “Bern the Witch event” appeared from the time of the controversy in March 2016. One of the top results amplifying the claim pointed to a now-defunct site called “Blue Nation Review,” and an archive from that site showed a short blog post:
No, this was not an official Sanders event. Yes, it was created by a user. And it lived on the official campaign site. The worst part of the story, which is gaining traction, is that 22 people signed up for it.
We’ve continued to track and report on the vicious assault against Hillary’s character. This yet another example.
Media Bias/Fact Check classifieded Blue Nation Review as an extension of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Clinton campaign operative David Brock abandoned the site after her 2016 loss:
These media sources are moderately to strongly biased toward liberal causes through story selection and/or political affiliation. They may utilize strong loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes), publish misleading reports and omit reporting of information that may damage liberal causes … This source stopped publication in 2016.
Factual Reporting: MIXED
Blue Nation Review is now called Share Blue. This source is owned by David Brock, a political operative of the Hillary Clinton Campaign. During the election this source only published Pro-Clinton content or negative reports on her opponents. After the election the source is publishing a highly one sided viewpoint that favors liberals. (5/13/2016) Updated (D. Van Zandt 4/4/2017)
Hillary ‘Burning at the Stake’
Absence of the Clinton “burning at the stake/Bern her down” image from Blue Nation Review — which pushed campaign talking points as news — was highly suggestive that the original rumor did not include the claim.
The tweet’s assertion “Bernie Sanders had a ‘Bern the Witch’ event on his campaign web site complete with a poster of Hillary being burned at the stake” was also contextually implausible due to the collection of hashtags displayed on the bottom of the image. One of the hashtags, #DemExit, did not even exist until late July 2016 — several months after Reddit users found the debate party listing in question:
On July 12th, 2016, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders formally endorsed rival Hillary Clinton for president against Republican candidate Donald Trump in the upcoming general election. That day, political news blogger Harlan Hill published an article titled “The Death of a Revolution and #DemExit,” noting that millions of Democrats would be considering leaving the political party to protest Clinton’s candidacy.
A January 15 2020 TinEye search of the image (archived here) returned no matches prior to July 2016. The first working version of the image showed it actually originally former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz — not Hillary Clinton:
Our search indicated that any versions featuring Hillary Clinton did not appear until 2017, well after the 2016 elections. We found no iterations of the Clinton version of the graphic used by anyone, whether supports of Clinton or Sanders, at any point in 2016.
Additionally, the only context in which we located it involved claims that it was used by Sanders’ supporters, not actual usage of the image by Clinton opponents. But based on its hashtags alone, it could not have been used in conjunction with a debate watch party in October 2015.
During a controversy over CNN’s unverified claim Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren that a woman could not win a presidential election, a Twitter user claimed that “Bernie Sanders had a ‘Bern the Witch’ event on his campaign web site complete with a poster of Hillary being burned at the stake.” That claim was both false and misleading — the “event” was a user-submitted debate watch party, of which there were hundreds or thousands across the United States. The party was neither created nor endorsed by the Sanders campaign.
It also bears mentioning that aside from Mic.com, the story was primarily advanced by Clinton campaigner David Brock. An attendant claim around a purported graphic of Clinton being burned at the stake was clearly false due to its display of hashtags from several months after the inidial controversy, and we found no versions of the graphic featuring Clinton (versus Wasserman Schultz) until 2017. Whether it was intentional or not, the claim as presented was disinformation.