Yo, coal miners of Philadelphia! You know who you are — donning your yellow hard hats for the daily deep dive into the darkened mines of Chestnut Hill or Upper Darby, risking your life and your lungs to tap the rich veins of carbon underneath Bridesburg, or Cherry Hill. Last October, you apparently missed your big chance to rally right here in our soot-drenched city on behalf of Donald Trump and fossil fuels forever.
On the other hand, it might have been easy to miss the announcement on Facebook from a group called Being Patriotic that a big "Miners for Trump" rally was slated for Oct. 2 last year at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia (a.k.a. "the heart of Coal Country") — written as it was in a kind of Boris-Badenov-"Is-moose-and-squirrel" pidgin English that reeked of a close encounter with Google Translate. The original post has been deleted (for reasons that will soon become clear) but it's still visible in a Google cache:
Philadelphia wasn't the only city in vote-rich Pennsylvania where the Being Patriotic group hoped to get a big show of hard hat support; the posting concluded that, "The current list of locations is being elaborated. Suggested cities are Erie, Pittsburg (sic), Scranton, Harrisburg, Allentown, and Philly." There's no news coverage to suggest that actual Trump fans flooded Marconi Plaza or any of the other "elaborated" cities last fall, nor — an Inquirer colleague tells me — did "Miners for Trump" apply for a rally permit at City Hall.
Of course, it's hard to pick up a permit when you're planning your Philly rallies from 4,354 miles away in St. Petersburg, Russia, in one of the rows of electronic produce at Vladimir Putin's giant "troll farm." As the Daily Beast — which has done some amazing work on Russia's fake-news war on the 2016 U.S. election — reported recently, the Facebook group Being Patriotic actually meant pledging allegiance to Mother Russia. The organizers of the "Miners for Trump" rally, the news site reported, were part of a Russia propaganda campaign. During last year's presidential race, Being Patriotic amassed an astonishing 200,000 followers — who apparently hated Hillary Clinton more than they loved good grammar — and sought to organize pro-Trump rallies in at least 17 U.S. cities, including a couple in Florida where folks apparently actually did show up.
There are two radically different ways to look at this. The easiest response is to laugh at the comic ineptness of Russians trying to capture the cadence of American politics, to conclude that the talk of Russian meddling in our election — while weird and definitely worthy of some investigation — is overblown, as it's doubtful any coal miner votes were swayed in a city not particularly close to any actual coal mines.
But I'm here to argue that would be a mistake. For one thing, the Being Patriotic group on Facebook was hardly a one-off. In recent days, investigative reporters and probers working for Congress or special counsel Robert Mueller have homed in on the role that Russian spies and trolls pretending to be Americans played in the 2016 election by blasting "fake news" about Hillary Clinton, amplifying pro-Trump posts on Twitter with thousands of automated "bots," and even spending rubles (yes, rubles) to purchase at least $100,000 and possibly much more worth of Facebook ads to better target voters in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan that Trump narrowly won. The biggest question the investigators want to answer is whether anyone from the Trump campaign aided those Russians — for example, telling them to target voters or coal miners in swing-state Pennsylvania, no matter how awkwardly.
Even if Team Trump wasn't involved, we need to take more seriously the notion that — though many journalists and voters cling to quaint 20th-century ideas about elections being decided on "the issues" or "the debates" — foreign meddling has exposed our 21st-century world, where "fake news" and a steady flow of garbage on social media may have discouraged enough voters on Nov. 8 to tip the election to the candidate who, nationwide, got nearly 3 million fewer votes. Political campaigns — both legitimate and dark — spend millions if not billions on data and on contracting firms like Cambridge Analytica, founded by a pro-Trump billionaire and home for a time to Trump allies like Steve Bannon, to go online and target the moods of voters more than their brains. For angry Trump partisans, the bots created an echo chamber to convince them they were not alone; for blacks or college students, the Facebook goal was instead to sour them on the System so they'd stay home or vote for a third-party candidate instead of Clinton.
Putin's men and women sopped this up even as the media turned a blind eye. New evidence shows that Russia's real motive in using social media was deceptively simple: To sow the seeds of division, chaos, and anger in America's political life. How else to explain the bizarre report this week that Russian actors used Facebook ads to target voters in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., which have been torn by racial unrest in the last couple of years, to promote the message of Black Lives Matter.
The idea was to discourage black voters, to make them stay home in places like Milwaukee — and it may have worked. In Wisconsin's largest city, a Democratic bastion with a large African American population, some 41,000 voters from four years earlier vanished in November as Trump won the state by just 22,748 votes. Likewise, new information shows Russian ads urged young Americans to abandon Clinton and vote for left-wing Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who, in Wisconsin, ended up getting 31,006 votes — again, more than Trump's margin.
The Russian ads for Stein are significant because it's a blatant, clear-cut violation of American election law for any foreign national, let alone a foreign nation, to pay for campaign ads — which is exactly what happened. It's one reason the current probes into 2016 election meddling — though important and necessary — don't go nearly far enough. The country needs a major blue-ribbon panel, modeled after the 9/11 Commission that investigated the 2001 terror attacks, to expose every possible fact about what happened last fall and spell out a blueprint so Congress can pass laws (if they remember how to do that) to make sure this doesn't happen in 2018, 2020, and beyond.
But when we get to the bottom of how Russia subverted our democracy, we can't ignore one important thing. A foreign power was able to mess with our election and possibly influence the outcome because WE are the ones who made our elections so weak in the first place. Some of these things are structural, and we've been talking (and not doing anything) about them for years: The Electoral College that thwarted the majority will of 65 million Americans, and the meshuga tradition of voting on a regular work day, instead of on the weekend as in most civilized nations.
Others are more recent and more nefarious. It was also reported this week, with less fanfare than the Facebook and Twitter revelations, that a large number of voters in two key Wisconsin counties — between 16,000 and 23,000, according to the authors of a new study — were scared away from the polls or didn't cast ballots because of strict voter ID laws enacted by Republicans. The respondents were heavily poor or black — two groups that overwhelming rejected Trump — and about 80 percent of them had voted in 2012, before the ID law was passed. No wonder Trump won the Badger State after 39 straight polls showed Clinton winning. Did the GOP candidate win because of Facebook skulduggery or the unfairness of the voter ID push? We need to acknowledge the answer was … all of the above. Republicans and Russians were on the same page when it came to discouraging black voters — even if they didn't know it. That's a disgrace.
Which is why an overhaul of American elections needs to go well beyond Russia's interference, to make sure that as many citizens vote as possible and that the candidate those voters prefer actually wins. But for the fate of American democracy, you have to look at those goofy Facebook messages as the canary in the coal mine. Even if there actually is no coal mine.