Paid Programming: Investigating streaming ads during the election season

Paid Programming: Investigating streaming ads during the election season

Our findings

illustration showing ads, tv, play button, a ballot box and an American flag

For each platform we evaluated, we assigned a letter grade based on their political ads policies, ad transparency tools, ad targeting capabilities, potential for abuse, and user control over ads.

For each of these five categories, we formulated a set of questions aimed at better understanding what steps each platform has taken towards greater ad transparency and accountability. Does it 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?

Report card

Several themes emerged from our research:

  • Opacity, not transparency, is the status quo. Few of the platforms we researched offered ad transparency libraries or archives, and those that did proved insufficient. Nearly every platform received a failing grade on ad transparency.
  • The definition of "political" is narrow. All six streaming platforms operate with narrow definitions of "political" or "election" advertisements, which are typically defined as ads supporting or opposing political candidates, campaigns, or ballot initiatives. It's unclear how platforms treat other kinds of issue-based or otherwise political ads.
  • Targeting is highly sophisticated. Most streaming platforms offer very complex ad targeting tactics. Many allow political advertisers to pull in third-party data, which means that viewers generally could be targeted with political ads based on causes they support, political party affiliation, their voter registration status, or whether they have cast their ballot already. Non-political advertisers have access to even more complex, programmatic tools.
  • Good policies, but unclear enforcement. Many platforms have rules that prohibit specific behaviors from advertisers, but there is no information about how those rules are enforced in practice.

This is part of a broader movement for a healthy internet. See more.