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Ban political ads on Facebook? Upstart, anti-Trump candidates object.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington in October. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

When Twitter announced a ban on political ads last month, some top Democrats urged Facebook to follow, saying the site’s promotion tools benefit President Trump by allowing him and his allies to spread falsehoods that reach millions.

But if Facebook were to cut off political ads, it could end up undercutting the scrappy, first-time candidates inspired to enter politics by Trump’s election, including some of the Democrats who helped the party retake the House in 2018. Facebook creates a more level playing field for challengers than television does, according to a review of campaign ads from federal, statewide and state legislative races during the 2018 midterm elections.

Voters are more likely to see Facebook ads than television ads from challengers, according to the findings, published in a working paper whose first author is Erika Franklin Fowler of Wesleyan University. She and her co-authors also discovered that Facebook advertising was less negative than messaging on television. At the same time, the material focused less on issues and was more partisan, suggesting that promoted digital posts are geared more toward base mobilization and fundraising than persuasion.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg explained Facebook's policy of not fact checking politicians' speech in a House hearing on Oct. 23. (Video: Reuters)

“Online advertising lowers the cost and the barriers to entry,” Fowler said, in part because advertisers can pay for specific impressions rather than having to display ads to an entire local television audience, which may exceed a particular electoral district, creating unnecessary costs.

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That targeting ability was critical to Democrat Rui Xu, who won election to the Kansas House of Representatives last year. He attributes his victory in part to his advertising campaign on Facebook.

“I really, really honed my messaging on Facebook,” said Xu, 30, who used the platform’s microtargeting tools, in combination with a list of voters in the district, to reach specific users. He spent an estimated $2,500 on the platform — and nothing on television.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has emerged as a leading voice in breaking up big tech. (Video: Blair Guild, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Other candidates in Kansas seeking to replicate his success next year and give Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly greater support in the state legislature are already using similar methods.

Mari-Lynn Poskin, a first-time Democratic candidate for the Kansas House, paid less than $100 this fall to gain between 1,000 and 5,000 views from users interested in politically moderate content in her area south of Kansas City. Her first ad touts Poskin, a lifelong Republican who switched parties after Trump’s 2016 victory, as a “high energy champion for District 20!”

She never could have afforded to get her name out so early on television, she said.

Poskin knows Facebook’s brand has become toxic, having played host to Russian interference in 2016 and now refusing to fact-check political speech. But, she says, it’s a “necessary evil.”

“I have friends who complain about Facebook and say we need to get off, but they’re not getting off,” the 54-year-old said. “So if I want to reach them, I’m going to find them there. I’m going to use it as long as my voters are still getting information and ideas from Facebook.”

Her perspective offers a counterpoint to the growing concern that Facebook ads are primarily a conservative asset. As Twitter found praise for washing its hands of the issue last month, some suggested that Facebook should do the same.

“I think other online platforms would do well to either accept their responsibility for truth or question whether they should be in the business at all,” said Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Ind. Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana and another Democratic presidential candidate, put it bluntly. “Good,” he tweeted. “Your turn, Facebook.”

Yet even as they criticize Facebook, national Democrats rely on the platform to build email lists, solicit small-dollar donations and compete with the conservative media juggernaut that has managed to catapult Trump-friendly stories into a dominant position in Facebook’s News Feed.

Facebook and YouTube block spread of supposed whistleblower’s name and photo. Twitter allows both.

Platforms like Facebook have options short of banning political ads entirely, including applying stricter fact-checking rules. Another avenue would be to restrict microtargeting, which Facebook is considering, according to a person familiar with the company’s deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company conversations.

While local Democrats say they understand the case for change, they also lack the resources to navigate a web of new regulations. Poskin’s 27-year-old daughter, for example, moonlights as her social media czar.

These candidates say updates to Facebook’s rules for authenticating pages for political advertising — announced at the end of August — serve as a cautionary tale for those calling on the company to clamp down. Advertisers were required to provide additional information about themselves, as part of the company’s ongoing attempt to fend off foreign influence and give users a better understanding of who is bankrolling political content on the platform.

Experts praised the move as a modest step toward greater transparency. But the extra burden for down-ballot candidates and local causes came into sharp focus in a Facebook group where Kansas Democrats like Poskin trade ideas and seek advice from activists and campaign strategists. When Facebook announced the update, members of the group scrambled to make sense of the rules.

Their efforts offer insight into the real-time, crowdsourced effort to conduct campaigns in a quickly evolving digital landscape.

The simplest methods of complying, which involved having a government website or a Federal Election Commission number available only to federal candidates, were of little use to local candidates in the group. Instead, Poskin had to match her campaign email address to the domain name of her website, provide a nine-digit employer identification number and send Facebook a copy of her driver’s license.

The rules struck some as excessive, especially compared with the ease with which other users seem to slip through the cracks of Facebook’s policies.

“Until we as a whole decide that [Facebook chief executive Mark] Zuckerberg is evil and despicable and get off Facebook, we are stuck with a system where it’s more difficult to run an ad for a school board election than it is to be a white nationalist on their platform,” Kathy Cook, a public education advocate in Shawnee, Kan., wrote in the group.

“Good for democracy, bad for municipal candidates,” Dave Miranda, the director of strategy for a digital firm called Apollo Artistry who helps local candidates running in the Kansas City area, wrote of the new rules in a thread of comments in the private Facebook group.

Michael Franz, a government professor at Bowdoin College and one of Fowler’s co-authors on the working paper, said Trump’s use of the platform is giving Zuckerberg a “reputation as a mastermind of misinformation.”

The finding that Facebook ads benefit down-ballot and first-time candidates serves as a “corrective to what’s emerging as the consensus position,” he said.

Still, Franz won’t defend the company.

“We’d be fine without Facebook,” he said. “I like the advantage it creates for challengers, but we’d be fine.”