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Mozilla grades how six streaming platforms — like Hulu and Tubi — handle political advertising, from targeting to transparency

In the U.S. right now, it’s difficult to avoid political ads on streaming platforms. Whether you’re watching a sitcom on CBS All-Access or an NFL game on YouTube TV, you’re inundated with volatile ads about the presidential election.

It’s equally difficult to trust these ads. There are few federal laws regulating them, and almost no transparency into how platforms target them. As more and more Americans cut the cord, and with a watershed election looming, political advertising has become dangerously opaque.

So today, Mozilla is publishing a detailed analysis of how popular streaming platforms handle political ads. Because voters deserve to know who can target them, how, and why.

Read the analysis: Paid Programming: Investigating streaming ads during election season»

Our researchers dug into the policies of six top streaming platforms: Hulu, Roku, Tubi, CBS All-Access, YouTube TV, and Sling TV. We pored over ad policies, targeting capabilities, and user controls. We asked questions like, Does the platform fact check political ads? and How sophisticated are platforms' targeting capabilities?

Ultimately, Mozilla has assigned each platform a letter grade, and also uncovered some startling trends about political advertising in the streaming space that all voters should be aware of as the election draws near.

Says Becca Ricks, Researcher at Mozilla who led the investigation: “Online political ads have enormous influence: They can microtarget, manipulate, and misinform voters at a level unmatched by any other form of political speech. Meanwhile, these ads are subject to almost no regulation and oversight, especially in the domain of streaming platforms. It’s a worrying combination.”

Chief findings from Mozilla’s research include:

-- Some streaming platforms are far murkier than others when it comes to political ads. Sling received the worst grade of the bunch, an F. Conversely, YouTube TV received the highest mark, a B+.

-- Opacity, not transparency, is the status quo. None of the platforms we researched offered ad transparency libraries or archives, except for YouTube TV. Roku says that it is planning to release an ad archive soon, but early details about that archive suggest that barely any information will be provided.

-- Targeting is highly sophisticated. Most streaming platforms offer very complex ad targeting that is comparable to Facebook. Most platforms 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. Non-political advertisers have access to even more complex tools, including customer matching, inferred behaviors, and lookalike audiences.

-- Good policies, but unclear enforcement. Most streaming platforms have strict policies to vet political ads, but those policies tend to be reactive. For instance, 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. In addition, many platforms have terms of service (ToS) that prohibit specific behaviors but there is no information about how the ToS is enforced in practice. For instance, Roku says that political advertisers are not allowed to run manipulated content or misleading messaging, but it's not clear how they identify and ban such advertisers.

-- Loopholes are common. All six streaming platforms operate with narrow definitions of "political" or "election" advertisements. For instance, Google defines "election ads" as any ads that are supporting/opposing political campaigns, representatives, or ballot initiatives. It's unclear how platforms treat other kinds of issue-based or otherwise "political" ads that are pervasive and influential during elections.

-- Platforms by broadcast TV networks have more mature policies. Platforms like CBS All-Access, spun off from established broadcast TV networks, tend to have stronger policies and processes in place when 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. Most likely, CBS applies its same policies for broadcast ads (which are subject to FCC rules) to its streaming platform.

-- World events could be worsening this situation. Research from Nielson and Magnite suggest that viewers are increasingly cord cutting during the pandemic. Further, because of the economic downturn and the rising unemployment rates in the U.S., people are switching from subscription-based platforms like Netflix to free, ad-supported platforms like Tubi and Hulu. And political campaigns are redirecting the money they would have spent on in-person events and canvassing to their budget for digital ads — potentially amplifying any misleading or harmful political messaging.

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