Fake purveyors and real consequences

A Facebook conference in San Jose, Calif. In recent days, more reports are coming out about Russian efforts to use Facebook and other social media to try to sway the 2016 election.

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.

You probably missed 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. "America has always been hinged on hard-working people," it began. "If you remove jobs, you'll remove our country from the world map."

The rally - one of six the group wanted to hold in Pennsylvania - never got a permit from City Hall; that's hard to do 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.

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.

Even if Team Trump wasn't involved, we need to take more seriously the notion that "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 three million fewer votes. 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.

The scheme to make black voters stay home in places like Milwaukee 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.

Our 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 it remembers 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 workday, instead of on the weekend as in most civilized nations.

Others are more recent and more nefarious. It was also reported last 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, most poor or black, 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. 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.

Will Bunch is a staff columnist. 215-854-2957 @will_bunch