Reddit will begin publicly disclosing its political advertisers and how much money they shell out in a new transparency hub, the company said Monday, offering the deepest look to date into how political actors are targeting the social media platform’s users ahead of the 2020 election.
The company announced in a blog post it will now maintain a new Reddit channel where it lists all political ad campaigns that run on the platform dating back to January 2019. The first-of-its-kind subreddit will display information on individual advertisers, how they target users and how much they spend on each campaign.
The move follows in the footsteps of digital titans Facebook, Google and Twitter, who over the past two years have made more information about their political advertisers public amid scrutiny from lawmakers over foreign actors using their platforms to meddle in past U.S. elections.
Ben Lee, Reddit’s vice president and general counsel, told POLITICO in an interview Monday that the company, which counted 430 million monthly active users at the end of last year, made it a “high priority” to implement the changes prior to the 2020 general election.
“We are trying to come up with a Reddit approach to what’s a pretty challenging debate regarding political ads,” Lee said. “Why we’re making this [change] is basically about two things that are pretty important to us: One is encouraging conversation around political ads and the second is transparency.”
Reddit’s advertising transparency center is part of a wider revamp of the site’s political ad policies, which will now require advertisers to provide additional information to verify their identity and have all of their paid political ads “manually approved by Reddit.”
“While we found our existing policy on political ads to be effective, we hope this update will give you a chance to engage directly and transparently with political advertisers around important political issues, and provide a line of sight into the campaigns and political organizations seeking your attention,” the company wrote in the blog post.
A spokesperson for Reddit declined to say how much revenue the company generates from political ads.
The new archive section shows one former Democratic contender dominating all other 2020 political candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. According to a POLITICO review, the Sanders campaign posted more than 170 ads on the platform since January 2019, outpacing any other candidate for federal office during that time period. Sen. Kamala Harris of California bought the second largest number of ads at about 70.
Like other social media transparency sites, Reddit’s portal discloses the cost of advertising campaigns in ranges rather than specific figures. The bulk of Sanders’ and Harris’ ad buys cost less than $1,000, data shows. The largest campaigns amounted to between $1,000 and $50,000.
The reelection campaign for President Donald Trump, who like Sanders has a substantial following across several popular Reddit channels, did not purchase any ads in that time span, POLITICO found.
The social media industry in recent months has been thrust into a heated debate over paid political speech online. Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates have called for top companies to crack down on misleading and false advertisements from politicians, while Republicans have blasted the push as an affront on free speech. The public reckoning has prompted a number of companies to reevaluate or tweak their policies.
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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took the drastic step in October of saying his company will no longer accept political ads altogether. While political advertising was a small source of Twitter’s revenue, Dorsey’s stand raised questions about how larger rivals Google and Facebook would respond.
Google announced in November it would limit political actors to targeting users based solely on their age, gender and location. But Facebook largely stood spat, opting against placing new limits on so-called microtargeting of political ads.
Reddit’s Lee signaled Monday the company is unlikely to follow Twitter in rejecting political ads outright.
“Just kind of getting rid of political ads doesn’t strike me as the right approach in this context,” he said.
Advertisers are limited in their ability to target specific individuals on Reddit relative to other platforms like Google, Lee added, because the site does not gobble up as much personally identifiable information about its users.
“As a platform we actually collect very little personal data. You don’t even need an email address to create an account,” Lee said. “So our advertising features are focused on the targeting communities and subreddits. It’s definitely not focused on targeting demographic data and personal information that we don’t even have.”