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Inside the huge, ‘secret’ Facebook group for Hillary Clinton’s biggest fans

(Sceenshot/The Washington Post)

The idea was to get a bunch of Hillary Clinton supporters to wear pantsuits to the polls on Nov. 8. But “Pantsuit Nation” has become something more than that. In just 17 days of existence, the “secret” Facebook group has become the sudden online home of passionate Clinton enthusiasts. Yes, they exist, and so far, there are more than 1.9 million people in the invite-only space.

“There’s an awakening that’s happening with each new member — ‘Wow! I’m not alone,’ ” said Libby Chamberlain, the 33-year-old founder of the Facebook group, who lives in Maine with her husband and two small children. “There’s this understanding that something special is happening.”

Many of the posts in Pantsuit Nation are actually about pantsuits: wearing them to the polls, sharing tips on where to buy them, sharing photos of what you’re going to wear to vote. Others are voter selfies from those who went early. But many of the most popular posts — the ones with “likes” in the tens of thousands — are personal stories, connected to what a vote for Clinton means to them. Some of the stories are even about pantsuits, too.

Dressed in pantsuits, Hillary Clinton supporters pay homage to the Democratic presidential nominee with a flashmob dance performance. (Video: Reuters)

Young people in the group have reacted strongly to stories from older members about the push to even be allowed to wear a pantsuit to work in the past, the “pantsuit as a symbol,” Chamberlain said. And that prompted others to share stories about their mothers or grandmothers struggling to gain entry to male-dominated fields. There are also a “lot of posts about embracing difference,” Chamberlain said, declining to get more specific because members of Pantsuit Nation post there with the assumption that it will not become public. Other posts were “about being supportive of one another through challenging situations.”

Pantsuit Nation has rules and an increasing number of moderators to enforce them. No negative posts about Clinton or Clinton’s opponents are allowed, but the intention to vote for her isn’t a prerequisite. Pantsuit Nation isn’t a space to defend Clinton against attacks, Chamberlain said, or to debate politics. And it’s not a place to share news articles about her, either. The rest of the Internet has plenty of room for that. Instead, Pantsuit Nation is about shared enthusiasm. The posts come into Pantsuit Nation rapidly, but the recent ones taken together are a river of smiling voters, family photos, and story after story about being “With Her” — and gratefulness for a supportive place to share it with strangers.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign comes to an end

MANHATTAN, NY - The morning after loosing to Republican Nominee Donald Trump in the general Presidential election, Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by former President Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Senator Tim Kaine and Anne Holton, speaks to supporters and campaign staff in a packed ballroom at The New Yorker Hotel in midtown Manhattan, New York on Wednesday November 9, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The Donald Trump Internet has spent much of the 2016 election season loud and in your face, congregating on public — if sometimes incomprehensible to outsiders — communities on Reddit and 4 Chan. Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign was bolstered by passionate online support networks that did everything from grass roots campaigning to just making dank memes about him. But the popular understanding of the Clinton Internet has been split, and less remarkable.

A revealing look at Donald Trump’s unofficial Internet campaign

There was the mostly-positive Texts From Hillary meme, which is ancient in Internet time. There were some appreciation groups of photos of the candidate — like this one of “Hillary’s looks.” There are a few, smaller, private Facebook groups. And there’s the campaign’s formalized, and formidable, presence online (including its list of official “grass roots Tweeters”). Clinton’s opponents call her online supporters “Hillbots,” a term that implies that their very existence  is institutionalized, less than genuine and human.

Pantsuit Nation remains “secret” on Facebook — to join, one of your Facebook friends has to invite you — but its existence has become a very public counternarrative to the popular assumption that Clinton lacks genuine, passionate supporters outside the campaign machine who are voting for Clinton, instead of just against the other candidate. In fact, Chamberlain says, she hasn’t heard from the Clinton campaign about her group (which now has a public website and much smaller public Facebook page), at least not yet.

That’s surprising, because Pantsuit Nation has raised more than $170,000 for the campaign in essentially one weekend, according to self-reported data collected by the group. They’ve made more than 5,000 calls for the candidate. The pantsuit idea in the first place, Chamberlain noted, is an obvious way to encourage supporters to actually go vote. And the group is growing quickly, as current members keep adding their friends into it. When I joined the group this morning to report on it, the group had just about 1.5 million members of varying levels of activity. It’s gained about 400,000 members while I’ve researched this article. For comparison, Trump’s biggest online enthusiasm machine is arguably the popular subreddit r/The_Donald. That group lists 264,241 subscribers now, total. The public, official campaign pages of Clinton and Trump have 8 million and 12 million “likes” on Facebook, respectively.

One of the keys to Pantsuit Nation’s growth is its privacy. “As much as possible,” Chamberlain said, “it removes the risk that they’re going to be attacked for their views.” Posting, say, on Twitter about supporting Clinton has been “an invitation for harassment” from all sides of online Clinton opposition. Posts on Pantsuit Nation are moderated, and moderators remove negative comments about any candidate. What’s left is a river of positive testimony.

‘Pantsuit Power’ flashmob video for Hillary Clinton: Two women, 170 dancers and no police

The future for Pantsuit Nation is uncertain. For one thing, there’s an election Tuesday that will determine whether Clinton will become president. But Chamberlain plans on keeping the group going in some form, either way. If Clinton becomes president, she said, “she’s going to face unprecedented obstruction.”

She added: “Pantsuit Nation is a reservoir of support for her that, I hope, we can harness.”

This post has been updated

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