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'Paint Philly red': How Russian trolls sought to influence Pa.'s 2016 vote

An archived cache of social media postings from accounts flagged by special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation details Russian efforts to reach voters in Pennsylvania cities and influence their opinions. As they did elsewhere, the accounts sought to spread false news stories about election fraud in the state, highlight racial divisions, and organize shows of support such as a series of coordinated rallies under the banner "Miners for Trump."

A "Miners for Trump" rally was announced in October 2016 by the @March_for_Trump Twitter account, which was identified by special counsel Robert Mueller as being run from Russia.
A "Miners for Trump" rally was announced in October 2016 by the @March_for_Trump Twitter account, which was identified by special counsel Robert Mueller as being run from Russia.Read moreTwitter

The announcements went out about a month before the 2016 election – dozens of posts on social media advertising a series of simultaneous rallies for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in cities across Pennsylvania.

Top Republican leaders, a former governor, and grass-roots GOP organizers were asked to lend their support. Reporters were solicited to cover the events. And like-minded locals were encouraged to distribute fliers – and to look past the stilted English.

"America has always been hinged on hard-working people," read one Facebook post from the Being Patriotic account, touting an Oct. 2, 2016, "Miners for Trump" rally in Philadelphia's "Marcony [sic] Plaza." "As far as Mr. Trump pursues the goal of creating jobs and supports the working class. He said he would put miners back to work. We could help Mr. Trump win Pennsylvania which is a battleground state."

It remains unclear how many people, if any, attended the events. But last week, Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election, revealed that this eleventh-hour show of Trump support in the Keystone State had been organized from 4,300 miles away.

Being Patriotic was just one of the accounts flagged in an indictment filed Friday detailing how Russia carried out its campaign to influence American voters over social media.

The 37-page document details for the first time how about 80 workers operating from an office in St. Petersburg, Russia, and backed by millions of dollars, used Facebook and Twitter to highlight discord, inflame divisions, and organize real-life demonstrations in American cities.

Many of the social media accounts used by the Russian trolls have since been shut down, and the indictment makes only scant mention of the disinformation campaign's efforts to target Pennsylvanians, whose votes would eventually make Trump the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1988.

But an archived cache of postings from several accounts flagged by the indictment shows an active Russian interest in the state and its voters.

"People are not always who they appear to be on the internet," Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said in announcing the charges Friday. "The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed."

As they did elsewhere, the accounts sought to spread false news stories about election fraud in the state, highlight racial divisions, and organize shows of support such as the early October "Miners for Trump" demonstrations.

"Angry patriots are about to paint Philly red," one account, singled out in Mueller's indictment, tweeted on Sept. 29, 2016. "say no to lies, corruption and tyranny!"

Another breathlessly tweeted on Election Day: "BREAKING: Machine Refuses to Allow Votes For Trump in Pennsylvania!! RT the hell out of it! #VoterFraud #voted."

Even when the accounts strayed beyond the overtly political, the social media presence sought to provoke discord, such as when one account flagged by Mueller highlighted an October 2016 clash between a flash mob of 150 youths and police in North Philadelphia.

"Watch 150 black teens attacking white students & police at Temple University in Philly," one of them tweeted. "But deafening silence from the MSM."

It is difficult to ascertain the reach these posts had and how many Pennsylvanians may have seen or interacted with them. But the archived postings show that the accounts began to focus on Pennsylvania in late July 2016 as thousands of Democrats flocked to Philadelphia for their party's nominating convention.

"Looks like real chaos!" read one tweet by @TEN_GOP, an account masquerading as the official Twitter presence of the Tennessee Republican Party that the indictment unmasked as a Russian fraud. The July 27 message to its 140,000 followers highlighted clashes between demonstrators and authorities outside the Wells Fargo Center, where Hillary Clinton was set to accept her party's nomination.

But with the nation's eyes on the city, the account also sought to highlight videos and photos of purported Philadelphians rejecting the Democratic nominee.

"BOOM. Philly man says he switched from Democrat to Republican, calls HILLARY ROTTEN CLINTON a 'liar,'" the account tweeted as the convention opened. Two days later, @TEN_GOP followed up with: "WATCH: Black guy speaking about #DemsinPhilly He is no longer a Democrat!"

By late September, with the election a little more than a month away, a second suspect account had joined the effort.

According to Mueller's indictment, the @March_for_Trump account already had managed to inspire a series of successful rallies in South Florida, where some attendees allegedly were paid to portray Clinton in a prison uniform while standing on a flatbed truck.

In Pennsylvania, the account began putting out feelers for its "Miners for Trump" rallies – a series of coordinated demonstrations planned for early October 2016 in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, and Erie.

Former Gov. Tom Corbett was asked to spread the word. "Please share," @March_for_Trump tweeted at him on Sept. 26, 2016. "It's time for PA residents to make the right choice."

The state Republican Party also got a solicitation. "Please DM us," @March_for_Trump tweeted Sept. 21 at the official Twitter account of the Pennsylvania GOP. "We're organizing some rallies in support of Mr. Trump in your state."

Neither Corbett nor his party appears to have responded to the entreaties.

Fliers were circulated on Facebook and Twitter – featuring the grim, coal-dust-covered visage of a miner straight from the shafts.

"How many PA workers lost their jobs due to Obama's destructive polices?" read one, touting demonstrations in Pittsburgh and in Philadelphia. "Help Mr. Trump fix it!"

Reporters, too, were asked to provide coverage. According to the archived postings, @March_for_Trump contacted nine reporters in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre media market – all employees of WNEP-TV and WBRE-TV — a day before the planned rallies.

"Hey, Clay! Our community is holding a 'Miners for Trump' rally tomorrow if you're interested in covering it," the account wrote to WNEP reporter Clay LePard on Oct. 2, 2016.  LePard tweeted back: "Thanks for letting us know!"

But despite the social media push, the archived postings suggest that unlike in other states, the effort to organize Pennsylvania rallies struggled to get off the ground.

Just hours before the purported Philadelphia rally was to take place in Marconi Plaza at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, @March_for_Trump tweeted: "Guys, we're looking for a coordinator for our event in Philly. If you'd like to help, just DM us! #TrumpPence #MAGA."

Whether any of the events actually took place remains uncertain. No one ever applied to City Hall for a permit on the date the Philadelphia rally was supposed to have taken place, no news reports appear to have been published, and a search of Facebook and Twitter shows no photos or posts picturing the event or those in any of the other targeted Pennsylvania cities.

Neither Philadelphia GOP Chairman Mike Meehan nor Dave Majernik, vice chairman of Allegheny County's Republican Committee, was able to recall such a rally.

"It seems like they just created a presence on the internet without anything actually happening," Majernik said.