Snap is attempting to shed more light on which political players are using its platform to reach voters as the 2020 campaign ramps up. It's the latest move by a big social media company to police itself as Washington struggles to figure out what role, if any, it should play in regulating political ads on such platforms.
Snap told me it has launched a political ad library in recent days that will list all political and advocacy ads on its platform; so far, the library includes more than 1,000 ads purchased in 2019 promoting President Donald Trump, and 2020 rivals former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. The database also includes third-party ads touching on hot-button issues, including ads from Planned Parenthood and even ads about criminal justice restructuring from the ice cream company Ben and Jerry's.
The library includes how much each advertiser is spending on its ad buy.
Snap is just the latest firm to proactively create a database of its political ads as 2020 gets underway. Snap said it didn't find evidence that Russian actors bought ads on its platform after an internal audit following the 2016 election so it hasn't confronted the same political blowback in Washington as larger platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which have previously rolled out similar databases.
But it highlights a growing awareness that smaller social media companies are targets of malign influence operations, and need to be regulated like everyone else when it comes to political activity, according to lawmakers. Right now, companies are left up to their own devices in policing such ads and their individual rules are inconsistent and vary in quality.
Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, told me Snap's database is a "positive step." But he warned of the general inconsistency governing such efforts.
"The big shortcoming in any of self-regulatory efforts is that any effort by a particular platform is not going to apply to any other platform," he said.
That's worrying lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have been trying to pass the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, which would force social media companies to abide by the same rules that apply to political ads on television and radio, and require large companies to keep a public file of the political ads they're selling.
One senator co-sponsoring that bill says Snap's new library doesn't go far enough.
"It's commendable that more companies are increasing transparency when it comes to political advertising; however, a patchwork of voluntary measures from tech companies isn't sufficient - we need to pass the Honest Ads Act," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told me.
"The goal of my legislation is to ensure that all major platforms that sell political advertisements are held to the same rules of the road, something that is already required for television, radio and print political advertising. Americans have a right to know who is paying to influence them regardless of where ads are sold."
Klobuchar introduced her legislation in 2017 with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and the late senator John McCain, R-Ariz., as a response to findings that Russian actors targeted American voters with social media ads designed to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. Some ads attacked Hillary Clinton or boosted Trump, but others sought to exploit divisive social issues. Klobuchar said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has blocked the bill from coming up for a vote.
Fischer warns that without government regulation, there is no accountability for smaller social media companies that might be selling political ads.
"Ads on platforms other than those big four are not going to be disclosed," he said.
There is some was evidence Russia also influenced smaller social networks in 2016 including Pinterest, where Americans unwittingly posted political content created by Russian operatives. Pinterest and other emerging social networks like TikTok have policies that prohibit the sale of political ads on their platforms.
But other platforms, like Reddit, continue to allow such sales - under tight rules that require the company to preapprove political ads and require the advertiser to disclose who paid for it. But the company does not maintain any sort of ongoing library of ads.
"Under the Honest Ads Act, the threshold is a site having at least 50 million monthly active users and, to the extent Reddit sells political ads, it should follow the lead of other large platforms and establish a political ad library," Warner told me.
Researchers and journalists also argue that databases maintained by Facebook, Twitter and Google are imperfect.
"All three are doing things right, and all are doing things wrong," said Laura Edelson, a doctoral candidate at New York University.
Facebook was the first company to create an ad library. But researchers and journalists using the tool have encountered technical challenges, as the New York Times first reported. Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, tells me since that story was published, the company has made a number of changes to improve its developer tool, including fixing bugs.
Edelson says Google has one of the best ad libraries from a technical perspective, but it doesn't include as many ads as other platforms. Google's library only includes ads related to people running for federal offices like the presidency and Congress, so it's missing key issue ads and ads related to local elections.
Twitter's ad library has come under fire because it doesn't allow researchers to download the full data set. The company does take a broader approach and includes issue ads in its database, but French researchers have questioned whether it offers a complete picture of political activity on its platform.
Edelson said Snap's database offers good detail about how its users were targeted by political players' advertising efforts.
But there are comparably a smaller number of ads on Snap than the large platforms
"It will be important to see how they maintain this as political advertising ramps up in 2020," she said.
© The Washington Post 2019