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Streaming services are the ‘Wild West’ for political ads, report finds

Many political ads that appear on your streaming services aren’t being fact-checked and could help spread misinformation without being taken down, a new report from the Mozilla Foundation has found.

Researchers at Mozilla found that six major streaming servicesYouTube TV, Hulu, Tubi, Sling, Roku, and CBS All Access — are, by and large, incredibly unclear about what political ads they allow and how they may or may not vet them.

In general, Mozilla found that most services are very opaque in terms of their ad archives and they have unclear enforcement of their policies. Sometimes it’s not clarified if any fact-checking is happening, or if any ads are removed.

This has led to a “Wild West” where dangerous content meant to misinform can seep into your ad reels between episodes of your favorite show.

“There’s a lot of evidence that people distrust social media ads, but they trust TV ads,” said Becca Ricks, a researcher at the Mozilla Foundation who led the work on the report. “My assumption is that people aren’t really thinking about the details of what governing body is in charge of [streaming ads]. People will think it’s the same [as that which controls TV ads].”

Streaming services are an ascendant medium (so they say themselves), and are quickly becoming a new platform of choice for political ads. Because there are so few regulations, however, misinformation can quickly spread with little moderation. And as the U.S. presidential campaigns are spending far less money this year on political rallies and physical events, more money is being poured into online advertising.

Mozilla gave each streaming platform a letter grade based on criteria like, ‘Do they fact check political ads?’ and, ‘How well do they target viewers?’

YouTube TV, owned by Google, got a B+, the highest of the grades. Roku and Tubi got Ds, Sling got an F.

Giving credit where credit is due, Ricks said that CBS All Access and YouTube TV seemed much more “mature” in their approaches to streaming ads. CBS in particular has stated that all its ads go through a two-week vetting process involving their legal and editorial departments. “It felt like they had taken the rules for broadcast and translated it to streaming,” Ricks said. YouTube, owned by Google, has probably been thinking this through, she posited.

There’s a difference, Ricks said, between having proactive vetting policies like CBS’s and being reactive. Roku, for instance, says that advertisers have to provide evidence of their claims. A spokesperson for Roku similar responded with links to their ad archive and advertising guidelines , which stipulate that advertisers cannot promote hate speech or contain “false, misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive claims or content.”

“That’s different than fact-checking,” Ricks said. “They also say that they ban advertisers who promote misleading content. But is that ban retroactive, after the ad has already run? They’re not super open about how they enforce this.”

Another big problem is that unlike a massive platform like Google which collects and tracks all of its own user data, a smaller platform like Tubi outsources these services to third-party vendors, Ricks said. Therefore, Tubi might not even know what kind of targeting algorithm they’re using.

A spokesperson for Google speaking on behalf of YouTubeTV directed Digital Trends to the publicly available information about how Google targets ads and what its standards are.

The other four platforms have not yet responded to a request for comment.

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Maya Shwayder
I'm a multimedia journalist currently based in New England. I previously worked for DW News/Deutsche Welle as an anchor and…
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