Inspired By Russia, He Bought Influence On Facebook In Calif. Congressional Race : All Tech Considered In California, a political novice is helping shape a hotly contested Democratic congressional primary by buying influence on Facebook. He says he wanted to "take a page from the Russian playbook."
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Inspired By Russia, He Bought Influence On Facebook

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Inspired By Russia, He Bought Influence On Facebook

Inspired By Russia, He Bought Influence On Facebook

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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.

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