Snapchat’s political ad disclosure once again shows the limits of self-regulation

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Like Google, Facebook and Twitter, Snapchat now has an online political ad library. That’s good news: every technology company that accept money to run issues and campaign ads should have a political ad file – particularly one that has aspirations to be a bigger hub for political news and civic activity for the biggest generation in the United States.

But you wouldn’t know about it through Snap, the company that operates the popular ephemeral messaging app with over 200 million daily users that reaches 75% of all 13-24 year olds in the USA. Snap has no news about it, nor has it tweeted out a link to the archive.

To her immense credit, of Snapchat’s product manager’s, Juliet Shen, tweeted out the news on September 9 – but her company didn’t amplify her.

It wasn’t until CNN reporter Kerry Flynn broke the news of Snapchat’s political ad file on Sunday, September 15, that awareness of the company’s newfound commitment to transparency started to grow.

Remember: Snapchat could have chosen to disclose this data from the moment it began taking money to run such ads. It’s playing catch-up in the fall of 2019, not leading the industry, and it’s not engaging consumers or anyone else.

To its credit, Snap has disclosed data for 2018 and 2019 (to date) as a .csv, an open, structured, machine-readable format that doesn’t require proprietary software to access or analyze. Also to its credit, Snap has published a detailed FAQ, detailed its political ad policies, and linked to its transparency report.

But at launch, the Snapchat ad archive is notably less sophisticated and robust than Facebook, Twitter or Google. Making sense of Snapchat’s open data requires people to download the file and sort it.

Snap should build a dashboard – like Twitter, Google and Facebook – that everyone can search, displaying top spenders, impressions, and creating profile pages for each buyer. As we know in other contexts, online search increases public access to information.

This is not a technically challenging task in 2019 – it was a cinch to upload the Snapchat political ad files to Google Sheets. Given that this is a company whose engineers are building augmented reality glasses, it’s notable that Snapchat fell short here.

While the political ads I reviewed have disclaimers, the archived creative online doesn’t link to any disclosures about the buyers. As noted above, Snapchat’s political ad file doesn’t have a public page for each entity that buys ads, which means that clicking on a given disclaimer doesn’t give anyone more information — unlike Facebook.

It’s easy enough, however, to sort the data to get some basic insights about who’s spending the most on Snapchat and on what, or to see all of the buys from a given entity.

Here’s the top 10 spenders, globally:

Snapchat_Political_Ad_File_-_Google_Sheets

Number 1 overall? Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the Australian government, paying for this ad encouraging young people to practice voting. (This more or less the opposite of nefarious election meddling.)

Breaking out United States data, you can see that only two Democratic presidential campaigns have been actively spending on Snapchat: the Warren campaign and the Buttigieg campaign.

While “Mayor Pete” has spent the most on a single ad (on climate change), Senator Warren’s campaign has made dozens of buys.

Snapchat_Political_Ad_File_-_Google_Sheets-warren

The Trump campaign is also on Snapchat, paying to promote this truncated ad.

Snapchat_Political_Ad_File_-_Google_Sheets-trump

To date, the media outlets that have reported on the file have taken Snapchat at its word in terms of how comprehensive or accurate these files are, reporting that “all political and issue ads are listed.”

Unfortunately, given that Snapchat hasn’t disclosed all of its advertising, it’s extremely hard for the press, regulators and watchdogs to evaluate the truth of the claim.

Journalists should consider reporting that they could not independently verify the claims until Snapchat is more transparent or they’re able to do so using other means, like ProPublica’s Ad Collector.

Update: CREW Research Director Robert Maguire, a dark money expert, has found that at least two ads, from One Nation, aren’t archived.

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Snapchat’s disclosures highlight a shadowy online landscape

Despite its limitations, Snapchat’s library is an important step forward towards transparency for the tech industry.

Once a given technology company decides to accept issue and political advertising, it should be transparent about who paid for it – and take meaningful steps to authenticate that entity, as Facebook (finally) did in August – how much the entity paid, the ad’s content, to whom it was targeted, when it ran, and where.

Unlike Google, Snapchat is disclosing issue ads.
Unlike Twitter, Snapchat is disclosing more than the past 7 days of ads.
Unlike Facebook, Snapchat is disclosing targeting information.

Unlike its peers, LinkedIn doesn’t accept political advertising at all.

Both Verizon Media Group and Reddit do accept political ads, but doesn’t disclose an ad file. Amazon makes no mention of political ads in its advertising policies, but it’s fair to wonder if campaigns or corporations are active there.

(Snapchat data does include something important: a data field for “creative properties,” which has the destination of the hyperlink for a given ad. For instance, the data shows that this Everytown ad on gun control (which has the most impressions to date in 2019) links to this petition. If you’re trying to understand what campaigns and organizations are trying to drive people towards, this kind of data is incredibly useful.)

It’s crucial to note that this uneven state of play in online political ad transparency is not an accident, nor that it has to stay this way.

It is the direct result of the lobbying of these companies against regulation at the Federal Election Commission, proposed legislation in Congress, and the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to relevant campaign finance reforms.

Self-regulation is not enough. The United States should be leading the world, not leaving it to technology companies to decide where, when and how they’ll inform the public, press, regulators and legislators about how power and influence is being wielded on their platforms.

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