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Inspired By Russia, He Bought Influence On Facebook

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On Tuesday, California holds its congressional primaries and in one largely rural district, there is a new kind of money entering politics: payments to Facebook, where messages can be sharply targeted and it’s cheaper to advertise than on radio, TV or newspapers.

In California’s 4th Congressional District, one political novice bought his way into relevance using the social network, and has helped shape a hotly contested Democratic race, stirring up animosity in the process.

Paul Smith was a marketer at Apple. He was anti-Trump. He wanted to help get a Democrat elected in his district. And, the 47-year-old who lives in Rocklin, Calif., says he wanted to “take a page from the Russian playbook.”

“I saw what was happening with Russian interference from the early reports,” he says. “The part that they were really good at is finding an audience that they needed to influence — finding out what those people’s greatest fears were.”

He left his job and volunteered to build the local Facebook page of a popular progressive movement called Indivisible. In less than one year, he made it a go-to news source in a region with little local news coverage. He used the page to get voters to show up at events, and take other actions in the real world.

The page grew fast. Other pages focused on the race have a few hundred followers. He got 17,000. And while Smith said the page would remain neutral among Democrats, he wound up endorsing a candidate and plastering her name prominently on the page.

“He would report the numbers constantly,” recalls fellow activist Jennifer Kawatu, who also worked on the Facebook page.

Smith spent thousands of dollars of his own money — to pay Facebook to “boost” posts. Boosted posts are a form of advertising. Instead of just letting his posts reach friends and followers organically, Smith paid to target specific demographics, focusing primarily on older female voters in his region because, he says, “they are way more active than everyone else.” Smith showed NPR receipts for $3,500 in payments to Facebook.

His peers found it strange that he would spend so much of his own cash. Three activists, including Kawatu, say he had a goal — that at a meeting he said he wanted use the page to launch his career as a political consultant. Smith denies that. He says he was just that committed to getting a Democrat elected, “something that a lot of people had written off as impossible.” The seat is held by a Republican, Rep. Tom McClintock, and the district was won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Smith did something on the page that really bothered his peers: He censored comments he didn’t agree with. At the beginning of his interview with NPR, he said he wants every follower on Facebook to know they’re being heard, and that he makes it a point to “like” every comment. But when asked to open up his version of the page — the administrator view — dozens upon dozens of comments were grayed out, so that regular viewers cannot see them. On Twitter, he’s blocking the accounts of the very candidates he writes about, so they cannot view his tweets directly.

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