In October 2016, Pennsylvania social media accounts promoted “Miners for Trump” rallies around the state with a picture of a gritty coal miner. The rallies coincided with a series of presidential campaign rallies by then-candidate Donald Trump.
It turns out the social media promotions were not created by U.S. coal miners, however. Instead, they were the work of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm, according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s recently released report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The IRA was the largest of the Russian efforts to help elect Trump to the presidency by manipulating social media. It housed hundreds of professional hackers in one St. Petersburg building, creating thousands of fake posts and comments a day.
As the Mueller report explains, the IRA organized U.S.-based rallies “from June 2016 until the end of the presidential campaign… often promoting the Trump campaign and opposing the Clinton campaign.”
The full poster for the “Miners for Trump” rallies read: “How many PA workers lost their jobs due to Obama’s destructive policies? Help Mr. Trump fix it!”
Candidate Trump had been campaigning on a pledge to bring back the coal industry, which had been losing jobs for decades due to a combination of steady advances in automation plus competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy sources.
The Russians ran paid advertising for these rallies on Facebook, featuring repeated images of “Trump digs coal” signs from real Trump rallies.
While other states, such as Florida, ended up having Russian-sponsored rallies, “there is no evidence that the rallies scheduled in October 2016 for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, and Erie ever took place,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Even so, the disinformation still had value for the Russians, not just aiding their overall effort to create chaos and division in this country, but also helping to create the impression that Trump had more support than he actually did. Trump ended up winning Pennsylvania by a mere 44,000 votes, a margin of under 1%.
Ultimately, more coal power plants closed during Trump’s first two years in office than in President Barack Obama’s entire first term — suggesting that neither Trump nor the Russians were offering more than false hope.
Ironically, the image that the Russians selected for their poster as representative of American coal miners was Lee Hipshire, who died from black lung disease. His son, also a coal miner, told NPR, “My dad was one of the most staunch Democrats that you’ll ever see in your life, and he never would have even thought about putting his face on something like that.”