Earlier this week, I came across a blog post from Signal, the encrypted messaging app. I’ve written about Signal before when it became the most popular app in the iOS App Store earlier this year.
Signal competes directly with WhatsApp and Facebook and is widely regarded as a more privacy-friendly messaging app due to its encryption and the fact that it doesn’t monetize user data. The blog underscored this fact by describing the company’s attempt to run targeted ads on Instagram, which it claims were rejected by Facebook.
“We created a targeted multi-variation ad designed to show you the personal data that Facebook collects about you and sells access. The ad would simply display some of the collected viewer information that the ad platform uses. Facebook n was not in that idea. “
The post includes screenshots of what Signal says are “some examples of targeted ads you’ll never see on Instagram.” It also includes a screenshot of what appears to be Signal’s disabled Facebook ad account.
The fact that Facebook killed Signal’s ads because they revealed exactly how much information Facebook knows about you definitely caught my eye. I’ve written a lot about how the whole business model of Facebook is about tracking everything you do online and then monetizing your personal information.
This seems to be the perfect example of how Facebook is fighting to keep users from knowing how far they are being followed. Except in this case, it looks like it was all a Signal stunt.
In response to my questions, a Facebook spokesperson told me the following:
It’s a stunt of Signal, who never even tried serving these ads – and we didn’t close their ad account for trying to do so. If Signal had attempted to serve the ads, two of them would have been rejected because our advertising rules prohibit ads claiming you have a specific medical condition or sexual orientation, as Signal should know. But of course running the ads was never their goal – it was to advertise.
When I asked Signal, the company’s head of growth and communications, Jun Harada, confirmed to me that “no impressions were released” and that the developer’s Facebook ad account was is not “permanently disabled”.
To be honest, Harada’s response to me is problematic. That doesn’t really answer my question, which was, “Didn’t Facebook approve the ads or remove them after they’ve been on Instagram for a while?” To say “no impression was given” is usually a non-response that does not help anyone understand what really happened.
Likewise, his response on Twitter to Facebook’s claim that he did not reject the ads, confuses matters even more:
There are a few obvious reasons for this problem. The first is that it’s really hard to know what really happened, but it looks like Signal is playing a little cowardly with the truth. What exactly does Signal mean when it says Facebook “rejected” its ads?
And, while Signal says Facebook deactivated their account, Facebook says it was a few months ago due to a totally unrelated issue. I followed up with Harada to clarify, but did not receive a response.
Here’s why it’s important: Trust is by far the most valuable asset in your business. This is especially the case when your business is building a product built entirely around the principle of user data protection and privacy. If it turns out that Signal is willing to mislead people in the name of scoring a few RP points, that creates doubt.
Perhaps an even bigger problem, however, is that his attempt to draw attention to a very real problem with Facebook will be taken less seriously because of this doubt. Facebook is absolutely following users in a way that most objective watchers would agree this is a blatant breach of privacy.
Facebook has also gone to great lengths in its public battle with Apple on iOS 14.5 to prevent users from being exposed to the amount of data the company collects and uses to target advertising. It is important to stress this fact, but doing it in a deceptive manner or as a publicity stunt does not help your cause.