Commentary

Streaming Services Are A 'Wild West' For Political Ads, Mozilla Finds

Political ads have followed consumers to popular streaming services. But unlike traditional TV broadcasters, streamers are not required to disclose how ads are targeted or who is viewing them. 

And while social media platforms have begun to come under public and government scrutiny, streaming services seem to be flying under the radar. 

Online political ads have enormous influence because of their abilities to “microtarget, manipulate and misinform voters at a level unmatched by any other form of political speech,” yet these ads “are subject to almost no regulation and oversight, especially in the domain of streaming platforms," sums up Mozilla researcher Becca Ricks. “It’s a worrying combination.” 

Mozilla, as part of the Mozilla Foundation’s efforts to ensure that the internet remains a public resource “open and accessible to all,” has just released a study on this state of affairs — and it’s not pretty. 

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The study researched six leading ad-supported streaming platforms — Hulu, Roku, Tubi, CBS All-Access, YouTube TV and Sling TV — based on their political ad policies, ad transparency tools, ad targeting capabilities, potential for abuse, and user control over ads. 

The researchers asked a set of questions within each of those five categories, such as: Does the service fact-check or otherwise vet political ads? Does it have a public ad transparency library that includes all ads, not just political ads? How precise can political advertisers get when they target users? 

Mozilla then assigned a letter grade to each platform. 

Sling got the worst overall grade, an F, while YouTube got the best grade, B. The report card is shown above. More specifics about what findings went into individual platforms’ grades are available in Mozilla’s report

In the process, Mozilla uncovered what it describes as “startling” political advertising trends in the streaming space “that all voters should be aware of as the election draws near.” 

For starters, the study confirms that the streamers' targeting is highly sophisticated. “Most [ad-supported] streaming platforms offer very complex ad targeting that is comparable to Facebook,” the report points out. “Most allow political advertisers to pull in third-party data, which means that viewers generally could be targeted with political ads based on household income, education level, marital status, causes they support, their political party affiliation, whether they are a registered voter, or whether they have cast their ballot already.” 

(The report also notes that non-political advertisers have access to even more complex tools, including customer matching, inferred behaviors, and lookalike audiences.)

On the transparency front, “opacity, not transparency, is the status quo,” when it comes to political ads, says the report. In fact, all of the services were graded F on transparency except YouTube TV, which got a B.

For instance, only YouTube TV was found to offer ad transparency libraries or archives. Roku said it’s planning to release an ad archive soon, “but early details about that archive suggest that barely any information will be provided,” the researchers say. 

Actually, most of the platforms have strict policies for vetting political ads, but they tend to be reactive, and they fall down due to unclear and inconsistent enforcement, the report concludes.

Many platforms require political campaigns to back up any claims made in their ads, "but it's unclear whether the platforms proactively fact-check those claims or remove ads if they included content proven false," it notes. "In addition, many platforms have terms of service that prohibit specific behaviors, but there is no information about how the ToS are enforced in practice.” 

For example, Roku says that political advertisers are not allowed to run manipulated content or misleading messaging, but it's unclear how they identify and ban such advertisers. 

In addition, loopholes are common.

All six of the analyzed streaming platforms have narrow definitions of "political" or "election" ads. Google defines "election ads" as any ads that are supporting or opposing political campaigns, representatives, or ballot initiatives, for example. But it's unclear how platforms handle other kinds of issue-based or otherwise "political" ads that are pervasive and influential during elections. 

Platforms spun off from broadcast networks, like CBS All-Access, tend to have stronger policies and processes in place compared to streaming services like Hulu or Roku. 

“For instance, all political ads on CBS are run through legal and editorial review to ensure the claims they make are factual, and that the ad adheres with local or federal laws,” says the report. “Most likely, CBS applies its same policies for broadcast ads (which are subject to FCC rules) to its streaming platform.” 

The researchers also point out that increased reliance on streaming services may be amplifying the damage from false, misleading or otherwise harmful political messaging. 

Specifically, in addition to increased cable TV cord cutting, the recession is causing more consumers to turn to free, ad-supported streaming services, and political campaigns are redirecting money that would have been spent on in-person events and canvassing to digital advertising on those services. 

In other words, while we’re all focused on the frustrations and anxieties surrounding social media platforms’ failure to stem messaging that’s potentially dangerous to our democracy, or even our lives, we’ve been largely oblivious to another mass channel that’s apparently quite vulnerable to exploitation by bad political actors.

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