What was so Controversial About the Signal Ads that Facebook Allegedly Blocked?

In a recent blog post, encrypted messaging app Signal said its multi-variant targeted ad campaign which it intended to run on Instagram had been blocked by competitor company Facebook, Instagram’s parent company. The ads were meant to advertise Signal’s end-to-end encryption by highlighting the amount of data Facebook and its affiliated companies collect about their users. 

The blog post was written by Signal’s Head of Growth and Communications, Jun Harada, and featured screenshots of the now dismissed ads, which were tailored to the individuals viewing them by using details provided through Facebook’s own advertising platform. The ads appear to be intensely personal, supposedly making it more uncomfortable for the individual reading it. The campaign was meant to “show you the personal data that Facebook collects about you and sells access to,” Harada said.

“You got this ad because you’re a teacher, but more importantly you’re a Leo (and single). This ad used your location to see you’re in Moscow. You like to support sketch comedy, and this ad thinks you do drag,” the copy of one ad reads.

Signal, which wanted to advertise on Instagram, said, “The ad would simply display some of the information collected about the viewer which the advertising platform uses.” 

The ads are meant to draw attention to Facebook’s massive repository of user data, which advertisers have access to in order to display relevant ads to individuals based on their interests and lifestyle. Facebook’s involvement with targeted advertisement has garnered much ire from people who would rather not have their data so widely available to advertisers. The company is still reeling from the impact the Cambridge Analytica scandal had on its popularity, which saw the data firm collect the data of about 87 million users without their consent. Despite this, Facebook remains one of the biggest tech giants in the industry, boasting about 2.8 billion monthly active users as of the fourth quarter of 2020. But Signal’s ad campaign was meant to dig into the concerns people have over data protection, even when these concerns have largely been dismissed as the cost of using a platform owned by a company that also runs other major social media apps.

Facebook is always ready to “sell visibility” into people’s lives, but refuses to be open and honest about how and where user data is being used to its consumers, the blog post added. “Being transparent about how ads use people’s data is apparently enough to get banned; in Facebook’s world, the only acceptable usage is to hide what you’re doing from your audience,” Harada added.

Signal Puts up a Fight Against Whatsapp

Facebook acquired popular encrypted messaging app WhatsApp in February 2014 for about USD 16 billion. In January 2021, WhatsApp users began receiving a pop-up notification detailing a few points related to its new privacy policy with links to the new terms. There was no option to reject the new policy. In fact, users were told that they would have to accept the new terms by March 8 to continue using WhatsApp. This reinvigorated irritation and concerns that users already had about the magnitude of data that was accessible to Facebook.

WhatsApp has now announced that users will not have their accounts deleted, but will see limited functionality until the new privacy policy is accepted. The deadline to accept the new policy had previously been pushed to May 15 after the backlash.

WhastApp’s initial announcement was enough to get people interested in competitor platforms, which meant Signal was getting more attention. BBC said that, according to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower, Signal saw worldwide downloads totaling 246,000 the week before WhatsApp announced the change on January 4. The week after WhatsApp’s initial announcement, this amount rose to a whopping 8.8 million. In India, downloads rose from 12,000 to 2.7 million, while in the UK and US, downloads rose from 7,400 and 63,000 to 191,000 and 1.1 million, respectively.

“[Data collection] isn’t exactly a secret, but the full picture is hazy to most – dimly concealed within complex, opaquely-rendered systems and fine print designed to be scrolled past. The way most of the internet works today would be considered intolerable if translated into comprehensible real world analogs, but it endures because it is invisible,” the blog post added.

Romessa Nadeem is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor.

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