Inspired By Russia, He Bought Influence On Facebook

May 31, 2018
Originally published on June 6, 2018 5:27 pm

Updated at 4:44 p.m. ET June 6

On Tuesday, California held its congressional primaries and in one largely rural district, there was 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.

His explanation: "You wouldn't allow, if you're Coca-Cola, for Pepsi fans to come on and say, 'Pepsi's better! Pepsi's great!' and let those posts stand. In general, what you want to do is stay on board, stay on track with your mission, so that everybody is moving in the same direction."

Smith got kicked out of the Indivisible coalition because others felt he was increasingly hostile and controlling. He made some controversial moves. For example, leading up to a local rally, he threatened to hand over the names of certain attendees to police. He said he was worried about troublemakers. Others say Smith was just antagonizing people he didn't like.

In an earlier era, a fallen activist would form a splinter group or bow out of politics. But now, technology empowered Smith to stay in the game solo — amplifying his voice (with payments to Facebook).

Smith agreed to leave the group, but demanded to take the Facebook page with him. In a litany of texts, he threatened to sue. The group conceded. They could have appealed to Facebook to arbitrate, but they didn't bother. They weren't sure it mattered.

Smith renamed the page — from "Indivisible CA-04" to "Sierra Nevada Revolution." And in one of his most viewed posts, he changed the mission of the page: from supporting all Democratic candidates, to slamming one and favoring another. "Sierra Nevada Revolution" endorsed an establishment favorite and front-runner, Jessica Morse. (A Morse spokeswoman, Makaiah Mohler, says the campaign is not involved in the page.)

Smith made her campaign logo the top half of his Facebook page. In a post authored by "Sierra Nevada Revolution," he called on voters to demand "refunds" from the other candidates. And, they did.

"People view this platform, this entity, as a neutral source of information," says Regina Bateson, a professor on leave from MIT who is vying with Morse (Smith's preferred candidate) for the Democratic nomination.

The Facebook post reached about 30,000 users. A dozen emailed the Bateson campaign, demanding back their campaign contribution. It's a clear example of online action resulting in real-world results — similar to the Russians engineering a protest in Texas via Facebook.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Bateson is sitting at her desk making awkward calls to voters who've listened to Smith and want their campaign contributions back.

One of her supporters has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that "Sierra Nevada Revolution" and Smith, the self-proclaimed "sole-owner" of the brand, had failed to register as a political committee, as required under elections law.

Smith says the complaint is "specious," but he's giving Sierra Nevada Revolution a "time out" anyway.

"I've never had enemies before, but I guess they say that comes with the territory in politics," he says.

Smith's Facebook foray illustrates how a total novice can become a player, using an advertising tool that's new to the game of politics.

Facebook is taking steps to verify the identity of people who place political and issue ads, and let voters see what election-related content is an advertisement — like Smith's many boosted posts.

Editor's Note: Since last week, Paul Smith has gone on social media, criticizing this story for being biased and flawed. NPR stands by its reporting. Smith also suggests that the reporter has a personal relationship with one of the candidates. That's not true.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

California, as we've been reporting, was the center of some hotly contested primary races yesterday. And we're going to look next at how payments to Facebook helped shape what happened in one congressional district that runs from Lake Tahoe down to Kings Canyon. NPR's Aarti Shahani has the story of one political novice who bought his way into relevance there using the social network.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Paul Smith was a marketer at Apple. He was anti-Trump. He wanted to help get a Democrat elected in his district, California 4, which is solidly Republican. The 47-year-old who lives in Rocklin, Calif., said he was intrigued by Russian interference and wanted to, quote, "take a page from the Russian playbook."

PAUL SMITH: 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.

SHAHANI: So he left his job and built a Facebook page. In less than one year, he made it a go-to news source in a region with fragmented local news coverage. He used it 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.

JENNIFER KAWATU: He would report the numbers constantly.

SHAHANI: Jennifer Kawatu, a fellow activist...

KAWATU: Oh, we went from, you know, 2,000 to 3,000 followers this past week or something like that.

SHAHANI: She and Smith joined a progressive grassroots coalition. He took the lead on building their Facebook page. He spent his own money - thousands of dollars - to boost posts to put them in front of a target audience. It's like advertising. Smith showed NPR receipts for $3,500 in payments to Facebook. His peers found it strange that he spent so much of his own cash. Three activists, including Kawatu, say he admitted his goal was to become a political consultant. Smith denies that. He says he's just that committed to beating the Republican incumbent.

SMITH: I saw an opportunity to try and do something that a lot of people had written off as impossible.

SHAHANI: He did something that really bothered his peers. He censored comments on the page that he didn't agree with. At the beginning of our interview, Smith said he wants every follower on Facebook to know they're being heard, that he makes it a point to like every comment. But when I asked him to show me his version of the page, the administrator view, I could see dozens upon dozens of comments grayed out, deleted from plain view. His explanation...

SMITH: So you wouldn't allow, if you're Coca-Cola, for Pepsi fans to come on and say Pepsi's better; Pepsi's great and let those posts stand, right? In general, what you want to do is stay on board, stay on track with your mission so that everybody is moving in the same direction, right?

SHAHANI: Smith got kicked out of the coalition because others felt he became hostile. He made some controversial moves. For example, leading up to a local rally, he threatened to hand over the names of certain attendees to police. He said he was worried about troublemakers. Others say he was just antagonizing people he didn't like. Smith didn't just bow out. He demanded to take the Facebook page with him, even threatened to sue over it. The group conceded. They weren't sure it mattered. In the coming months, he would prove it does.

REGINA BATESON: All right, we're calling Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING TONE)

SHAHANI: That's Regina Bateson, MIT professor-turned-candidate.

BATESON: So I saw that you emailed us on April 2.

SHAHANI: Bateson and Jessica Morse were the top two Democrats in yesterday's election. And even though the page was created to be neutral among Dems, Paul Smith decided to go ahead and endorse Morse. He prominently displayed her campaign logo at the top of his Facebook page. And in a post, he called on voters to demand a refund from the others. So Bateson found herself sitting in her office making awkward calls to voters. A dozen demanded back their campaign contributions.

BATESON: Was there any reason why you felt like you needed to get in touch and especially ask for that refund?

SHAHANI: One voter filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the page - it's called Sierra Nevada Revolution - had failed to register as a political committee as required under elections law. Smith says the complaint is specious - in other words, misleading. But he claimed he'd give his page a, quote, unquote, "time out" and take it off line, though it's still up.

SMITH: I've never had enemies before, but I guess they say that it comes with the territory in politics.

SHAHANI: Paul Smith's preferred candidate emerged as one of yesterday's winners. While many factors were at play, his Facebook foray illustrates how a total novice can pay to play using an advertising tool in a way that is new to the game of politics. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Rocklin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.