Reddit CEO defends allowing Trump ads ahead of presidential election

Reddit is gearing up to run ads for President Donald Trump ahead of the 2020 presidential election despite concerns from employees, TechCrunch has learned. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman addressed some of these employee concerns during an all-hands meeting last week, viewed by TechCrunch.

“I know for many of you, [Trump] is simply a symbol of hate and there’s no getting around that — what he represents,” Huffman said. “And as a result, many of you have very real anger towards him or fear of where the country is going or sadness around where the country is going, and believe me, I share a lot of those emotions around the state of our country — the polarization of political discourse, the inflammatory rhetoric, the incompetence from our government. It feels like we are regressing.”

Still, Huffman spoke about how he struggles with trying to reconcile his personal beliefs with his duty as the CEO of Reddit. He pointed to Reddit’s long history with Trump, beginning in the 2016 election with r/The_Donald .

“Most of our content policy updates have been related to them in some form or fashion, including the most recent one,” Huffman said.

The decision to allow Trump ads comes within months of Huffman saying Reddit does not tolerate “hate, racism, and violence, and while we have work to do to fight these on our platform, our values are clear.”

“When I think about Reddit’s role moving forward and the role we can play in the world, I think the best way to address many of these issues is actually through the upcoming election,” Huffman said. “There’s a number of things we can do and are doing on that end to ensuring a fair election and I think we have a very important role to play. As I mentioned in my email about Black Lives Matter two months ago, that we later shared, I think in the election — this is one of the areas where Reddit can really lean in and make a difference. […] I know you might not agree with me on some of these points or follow the logic and I can’t take that away from you and I’m not trying to diminish that in any way. What I’m trying to do with Reddit is try to reconcile our beliefs with our platform and see if we can be the best participant possible in the upcoming election.”

And that means allowing political ads. The ads will likely take the form of a homepage takeover, which is the top link on the site, but not the display ads on the sidebar, Huffman explained. Additionally, Reddit will allow reserved buys, which will require the Trump campaign to work directly with the sales team. These ads will feature comments to enable users to engage with the ad.

“My hope is that this would shift the conversation or make the conversation more effective — not just let these ads be a one-way broadcasting mechanism as advertising is elsewhere on the internet but more of a two-way conversation,” Huffman said.

What Reddit won’t allow, however, are auctions, which have previously resulted in advertisers essentially bombing the entire site with their ads.

“We debated having no political ads at all on Reddit and I certainly think there’s a compelling argument for that but I think that Reddit has the opportunity to elevate the discussion around political ads and a duty to play in the political process,” Huffman said. “And I say all of this knowing that this may simply be unacceptable to some of you and I understand why. And in some areas, I can relate to why and in others I can see and hear the pain. There’s an opportunity for this to go well and a risk for this not to go well. And I think that’s a risk we accept and we will do our best to mitigate the challenges that we can foresee.”

Back in April, Reddit announced an update to its political advertising policy that requires campaigns to leave comments open on ads for the first 24 hours. What Reddit is working on now is a bit different. Currently, Reddit allows advertisers to moderate those comments, but Huffman said that’s probably not the right move in this context.

“They’ll either moderate too much or too little and that will create controversy either way,” he said. “And it could be the case that the advertiser wants that, and that controversy would come directly at our expense. So that’s not a workable solution.”

Another option is for Reddit to do comment moderation, but that also poses its risk for controversy. Huffman spoke about how Reddit may then be accused of moderating too much or too little.

“But maybe we can try this other approach, so the other approach would be no direct comments on the ads,” Huffman said. “Instead, we would have a sticky comment with a link encouraging users to submit that ad to a specific community for commentary.”

The vision, Huffman said, is people would be able to discuss the ad in specific communities on Reddit. Those discussions would then be moderated by the specific community. This feature, however, has yet to be built.

The plan is to start running political ads toward the end of September, with the goal to start testing this new feature in early September to see if it works.

“And we are willing to walk away from this deal if that’s not possible — if we can’t hit that bar, if we can’t build this in time,” Huffman said.

Huffman seemed optimistic about being able to get this done, saying it’s not “prohibitively disruptive” to any team’s road maps. Still, he recognized there are other decisions to be made around the election, such as which dates they will allow and won’t allow campaigns to advertise.

“Far and away, I think the most common question I’ve been asked about the ads themselves is, ‘why are we doing this at all?’ Like, ‘why don’t we just say no? It’s a ton of work. It’s a huge distraction,’ ” he said. “[…] I’ve shared with you the challenge about separating my personal views from, I think, my and our work at Reddit, the platform. But even when you now look at just kind of the practical decisions we have to make, that’s a very persuasive argument. At the end of the day, I think that Reddit and politics are deeply intertwined. We will have a role to play in this election no matter what. And political ads are a part of the political process. And if there’s a chance that Reddit can show another more healthy, more effective way, or add to the political conversation I think we should take it. That is what Reddit does. It’s not a sure thing and I think there are a variety of ways for this to go wrong, which we are documenting now, and we will do our best to address.”

TechCrunch has reached out to Reddit and will update this story if we hear back.