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Facebook Tried to Rein In Fake Ads. It Fell Short in a California Race.

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SAN FRANCISCO — Regina Bateson had just finished an Easter egg hunt with her children on April 1 when her phone started buzzing. Take a look at Facebook, messages from her friends and colleagues urged.

Ms. Bateson, a Democrat running for Congress in the California primary on Tuesday, quickly opened up the social network. There, she saw what appeared to be a news article that painted her as underhandedly trying to torpedo the campaign of a rival Democratic candidate. When Ms. Bateson clicked through the article, she was directed to a Facebook page run by Sierra Nevada Revolution, a local progressive group she had clashed with in the past.

The article was not a news story, she found, but a political ad paid for by Sierra Nevada Revolution. And while Facebook rolled out new rules on April 6 mandating that campaign ads be clearly labeled and say who had purchased them, Sierra Nevada Revolution’s ad about Ms. Bateson continued to be targeted to local voters throughout that month without any of those disclosures.

“It was a perfectly targeted negative campaign ad, but the average person had no idea who had really written it or what their motivations were,” said Ms. Bateson, 35, who is running in the Fourth Congressional District, a mountainous stretch of land between Sequoia National Forest and Lake Tahoe. She said she was frustrated by Facebook’s inability to label the so-called article as a political ad.

Ms. Bateson’s experience underscores Facebook’s difficulties as the Silicon Valley company aims to prevent manipulation of its ad system in elections, especially as the midterms loom this November. While the company has introduced several measures to improve the transparency of political ads on its platform, some groups and individuals appear to be finding ways to flout the new restrictions — and Facebook has not been able to catch them.

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