Future Tense

Reddit’s Intriguing Approach to Political Advertising Transparency

Sanders and Harris stand at lecterns in front of an American flag background.
Then-Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris at a Nov. 20, 2019, debate in Atlanta. Both advertised on Reddit. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Black Lives Matter campaign blocked aid from reaching Hurricane Harvey victims, Bill Gates wants to use vaccines with microchips to control, follow, and reduce the world’s population, the white supremacist that organized the Charlottesville rally is actually a liberal spy. These are all examples of viral misinformation and disinformation stories that have spread across Reddit over the past few years.

Misinformation is rampant on internet platforms, both in user posts and in advertising, and Reddit is no exception. But when it comes to advertising, platform users expect content to be vetted and truthful. As the 2020 election nears, internet platforms are facing renewed pressure to provide transparency and accountability around political advertising on their services, to help safeguard the electoral process. Reddit is the latest platform to try to respond to these demands. On April 13, the company launched a political ads transparency hub and introduced a set of unique changes to its political advertising policies, removing many of the traditional divisions between advertisers and users on social media platforms.

Reddit’s changes are valuable as concerns around how political advertising can be used to spread misinformation and disinformation continue to grow. Many lawmakers in the United States, and across the globe, have pressed internet companies to implement stricter policies to crack down on this content. Others lawmakers, however, have pushed back on these efforts, arguing that these efforts infringe on the First Amendment. To navigate the complicated world of online political advertising, companies must walk a fine line. Reddit’s moves in this space—a combination of those taken by other platforms and some that are unique to it—are promising, but it can still do more to provide greater transparency and accountability.

Reddit is a sizable social media platform, with approximately 330 million monthly active users. The company’s decentralized subreddit model has made it popular with niche communities, and the platform has gained popularity among politically active users. As a result, Reddit has also become a popular destination for political advertisements. The company has not disclosed how much revenue it generates from political advertising, but its political ads transparency hub indicates that Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris were the primary political candidates who purchased political advertisements since the beginning of 2019. Interestingly, the data suggests that during this period there was also greater progressive spending on issue-focused political ads than conservative spending. Unlike other internet platforms, Reddit only permits political advertisers to run campaigns in the United States, and at the federal level

Reddit’s new political ads transparency hub, found on a new subreddit titled r/RedditPoliticalAds, includes information on all political ad campaigns that have run on the platform since 2019. The hub provides data on individual advertisers, including what parameters they chose to identify users to target with their ads, how many impressions (or views) the ads received, the time period during which ads were run, and the advertisers’ spending on a per-campaign basis. The data related to targeting parameters includes granular information such as which subreddits, regions, countries, and subreddit-based interest groups advertisers chose to focus on, and which regions and subreddits advertisers excluded in their targeting.

For example, an ad run by Kamala Harris for the People for one day on Jan. 30, 2019, stated “I’m running for President. Together, we’ll build an economy that works for everyone and make health care accessible for all. Add your name to join our campaign.” According to Reddit’s reporting, the advertisement garnered less than 10,000 impressions, it targeted the r/liberal subreddit, it excluded the r/republican and r/conservative subreddits, and was purchased for less than $100.

In addition, Reddit includes data on ads that it approved in error and clearly designates that these ads were erroneously permitted. This granular data is a positive step toward providing accountability around Reddit’s advertising review process.

Reddit has also revamped its broader political ads policies, and will now require advertisers to provide more information to verify their identity. Further, although Reddit already manually reviewed ads for messaging and creative content to ensure they are not “deceptive, untrue, or misleading,” advertisers will now be required to enable comments on their ads for the first 24 hours of their campaign to promote discussion around the content of the ads. This is a unique approach that enables users to engage with advertisers and their content, rather than having no easy way to challenge ad content. However, advertisers can moderate the comments, so an advertiser could theoretically remove comments they don’t want shown under the ad, which could undermine the effectiveness of this feature.

Reddit’s latest move indicates it is following in the footsteps of other major internet platforms in providing more transparency around political advertising. Following the 2016 elections, platforms such as Facebook and Google received significant criticism around the ease with which foreign actors could use their advertising platforms to interfere in U.S. elections. Both Facebook and Google now have political ad transparency hubs. Twitter received similar criticism from lawmakers, but instead responded by banning political ads altogether. Given that political ads generated a small portion of the company’s revenue, this was likely easier for Twitter to do than it would be for other platforms. Reddit has declined to disclose how much revenue it generates from political ads, but Ben Lee, Reddit’s vice president and general counsel, has said that it’s unlikely the platform would ever ban political ads completely. Politics is a central conversation topic on the platform, and the service has proven to be a valuable space for such discussions.

The debate over whether to fact-check political ads has similarly been difficult for social media companies to navigate. Google has effectively stated that it does review the content of political ads to ensure they are not misleading, whereas Facebook has refused to fact-check this content, sparking controversy. Reddit’s decision to manually review advertisements for misleading content is a positive method for ensuring that misinformation does not spread through advertising on the platform.

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the political ads conversation has also been consumed by questions around a technique, known as microtargeting, which utilizes user information to enable precise ad targeting. In November, Google announced that it will limit the targeting parameters political advertisers can access to age, gender and location. Facebook, on the other hand, has not made moves to limit the microtargeting of political ads, with supporters of this decision claiming that such limits could harm smaller grassroots campaigns. On Reddit, advertisers have more limitations on targeting, as the company does not collect as much personally identifiable information as Facebook and Google. As a result, microtargeting options are limited, and therefore the harms created by microtargeting are less pronounced.

Reddit’s policy changes and efforts are a welcome step. However, as New America’s Open Technology Institute, where I work, outlined in our latest report on ad targeting and delivery, platforms need to do more to provide transparency and accountability around their advertising operations. (New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) In particular, companies need to provide greater transparency around how they enforce their advertising policies and around how many ads are removed during this process. In its political ads transparency hub, Reddit highlights that over the past two years the accuracy rate of its review process was 92 percent. Helpfully, users can also filter through the political ads subreddit to see all of the ads that were reviewed in error, and each post includes some information on why the ad was eventually removed, such as the ad was for a state-level campaign, the ad lacked clear “paid for by” disclosures, or the ad violated Reddit’s advertising policy regarding deceptive, untrue, or misleading advertising.  Going forward, Reddit should also publish aggregate information on its ad review process to provide more high-level insight around where, and how often, the review process falls short.

In addition, Reddit and other companies need to expand their political ads transparency reporting efforts further, to include granular engagement and interaction information. In the case of Reddit, this means sharing information such as the number of upvotes and downvotes political ads received, as well as the number of comments users posted on ads now that comments must be permitted for the first 24 hours. Further, the company should redesign its political ads transparency hub so that it is more user-friendly. Currently, the data in the hub is available through an expansive subreddit and through CSV (comma separated values) spreadsheets. The spreadsheet format is valuable for journalists and researchers. However, neither the spreadsheets nor subreddits are easily searchable, limiting how useful the tool can be for a more general audience. Finally, going forward, Reddit should also disclose how much of its revenue comes from political advertising—it’s an important figure for assessing how prevalent and popular political ads are on the service.

Reddit’s latest transparency efforts are welcome steps, and hopefully are only the beginning. But they also reveal that when you are browsing through r/science or r/dadjokes, you may be getting more than what you expect.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.