John Mattes: Russia duped Bernie voters via Facebook

Oliver Mitov was dispatched by the Kremlin to get Bernie Sanders fans to vote third-party in the November election, write in the Democratic primary loser for president — or not vote at all.

But investigative journalist John Mattes, describing how fake stories on Facebook helped defeat Hillary Clinton, isn’t sure who Mitov is.

“He may be a bot. He may be a person [or four]. He may be living in Macedonia, laughing,” Mattes told a rapt audience of 90 Thursday night in Hillcrest.

John Mattes speaks to San Diego Democrats for Equality, the the predominantly gay club in Hillcrest. Photo by Ken Stone

But Mitov’s thousands of posts — and similar ones from Albania and elsewhere — duped just enough of the 13 million Sanders supporters to hand the election to Donald Trump and prove Russia could hack American democracy, said the 66-year-old resident of Pacific Beach.

A major Sanders organizer in Southern California himself, Mattes admitted that “we were played.”

Grass-roots advocates of the Vermont senator did the best they could to identify fake postings that depicted Clinton in negative and shocking ways, Mattes said, but it wasn’t enough.

Two days after being cited on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Mattes gave San Diego Democrats for Equality a briefing on how Russia continues to exploit Facebook.

“The campaign has not ended,” said Mattes, who has been reviewing more than 100 Bernie Sanders Facebook pages nationwide for evidence of planted stories that swayed enough voters to throw the election.

Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña was part of a 90-member audience. Photo by Ken Stone

“Russia is in our election process, and we don’t know how to stop it,” he said. “We didn’t have a vehicle to shut it down. We were being victims en masse.”

The Kremlin has developed technology that allows many Oliver Mitovs in Eastern Europe to post 100 fake stories at a time on Facebook.

How extensive was the influence?

Mattes said 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments on Sanders-backing Facebook pages were spawned by bogus anti-Clinton attacks.

That compares with just under 7.4 million shares, reactions and comments connected to legitimate news sources.

Mattes noted that 8 percent of voters age 18-40 voted for third-party candidates. In Wisconsin, 144,000 votes were cast for third-party candidates, and Clinton lost the state by 44,000 votes.

Councilwoman Georgette Gómez swears in new officers of San Diego Democrats for Equality. Photo by Ken Stone

“Peel off a few thousand [voters] in various places, and you win,” he said at the Joyce Beers Community Center.

And the influence continues, he said, pointing to a “Bernie Sanders 2020” site that has 60,000 members — but is “100 percent generated by the Kremlin” and originating not in Burlington, Vermont, but in Albania.

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He said Russia succeeded in its “campaign of subversion of American democracy,” which he first detected about six months ago.

Mattes said the State Department told him in October that “yes, Russia is in our electoral process, and we don’t know how to stop it.” (Russians have done the same in Ukraine, Sweden and “all over Eastern Europe,” he added.)

Since then, Mattes has worked with Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, The New Yorker and the Maddow show to document Russian influence in Facebook fan pages for Sanders.

Huffington Post described how one story — “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE” — had been shared on Facebook some 568,000 times and earned more than 15.5 million impressions.

In a Vermont Conversations interview, Mattes noted stories that Clinton murdered her political opponents, used body doubles and ran child-sex rings.

District 2 San Diego City Council candidate Bryan Pease introduces himself to Democrats for Equality. Photo by Ken Stone

Mattes confessed that the Democratic National Committee didn’t do Sanders any favors, as revealed in the Russian-hacked emails made public on WikiLeaks. But Mattes insisted that “discouraged” Sanders voters who either voted against Clinton or didn’t go to the polls at all were sufficient to hand the White House to Trump.

“I’ve been called a Hillary troll, a CIA bot,” Mattes said. But he’s pledging to continue probing the Russian exploitation of social media.

Responding to an audience question during his half-hour presentation, which included projected images, Mattes said Russian President Vladimir Putin targeted Clinton because she questioned the legitimacy of his election.

Russia’s larger goal, he said, was destabilizing U.S. democracy.

He would like to see “some responsibility” at Google and Facebook to avoid future attacks. He’d like to see legislation enacted that revives a form of registration involving electioneering (which reduced the voice of the Nazi-friendly German American Bund, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II).

Finally, Mattes called for pressure on Congress to launch a “clean” investigation of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Noting that Sanders supports efforts to weed out the Facebook attackers, Mattes said that unless legislative mechanisms are created to stop it, “they will do it again.”

“The Kremlin succeeded in what they wanted to do,” he said. “It’s up to us to demand a special prosecutor. … It’s too important not to.”

Updated at 6:15 p.m. March 24, 2017