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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Explained: Why Signal was blocked on Facebook-owned Instagram

Signal attempted to use Instagram ads to highlight how Facebook 'collects' data from users, and was blocked. What did it do, and how did Facebook respond?

Written by Pranav Mukul , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 6, 2021 7:50:08 am
Signal, an encrypted messaging app. (The New York Times: Haruka Sakaguchi)

An attempt by instant messaging app Signal to use Instagram ads to demonstrate how Facebook collects and sells user data resulted in Signal’s Instagram account getting blocked. Signal, which is owned by a nonprofit corporation, competes with WhatsApp. Both WhatsApp and Instagram are owned by social media giant Facebook.

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What did Signal claim?

Signal, which has a specific focus on privacy (its tagline is ‘Say hello to privacy’), claims companies like Facebook collect user data from their bouquet of apps “in order to sell visibility into people and their lives”.

In a blog post, Signal said Facebook’s own tools divulged in part how its technology works. “It’s already possible to catch fragments of these truths in the ads you’re shown; they are glimmers that reflect the world of a surveilling stranger who knows you. We wanted to use those same tools to directly highlight how most technology works. We wanted to buy some Instagram ads,” it said.

So, what did Signal do?

Signal created what is called a multi-variant targeted ad campaign. In this, ads that ran on Instagram carried three sentences of text, parts of which were variable.

The variables depended on the target audience Signal chose from Instagram’s ad-targeting tools. In Signal’s text ads, part of the text would depend on the specific parameters attributed to the viewer of the ad on the basis of data collected by Instagram about that viewer.

For example, one of the ads read: “You got this ad because you’re a ‘certified public accountant in an open relationship’. The ad used your location to see you’re in ‘South Atlanta’. You’re into ‘natural skin care and you’ve supported Cardi B since day one’.”

The parts in the single quotes were variable, and depended on whom the ad was targeting.

Another example: “You got this ad because you’re a ‘newlywed pilates instructor and you’re cartoon crazy’. This ad used your location to see you’re in ‘La Jolla’. You’re into ‘parenting blogs and thinking about LGBTQ adoption’.”

And how did Facebook respond?

According to Signal, Facebook blocked its account on Instagram. “The ad would simply display some of the information collected about the viewer which the advertising platform uses. Facebook was not into that idea. Facebook is more than willing to sell visibility into people’s lives, unless it’s to tell people about how their data is being used,” Signal wrote in its blog. “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.”

Facebook has not issued a statement on Signal’s allegations.

But why is Signal targeting Facebook?

Signal and WhatsApp are rivals, and this isn’t the first time Signal has taken a shot at Facebook.

Earlier this year, when WhatsApp announced a change in its policy terms to be able to share some data with Facebook, the number of downloads for Signal skyrocketed. At the time, Facebook ran an ad for its Messenger app on iPhone whenever users searched for Signal.

In response, Signal posted on Twitter: “Facebook is probably more comfortable selling ads than buying them, but they’ll do what they have to do in order to be the top result when some people search for ‘Signal’ in the App Store. P.S. There will never be ads in Signal, because your data belongs in your hands not ours.”

Signal has been endorsed by Elon Musk of Tesla and Jack Dorsey of Twitter.

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Do regular users of Instagram need to be concerned about what Signal has said?

What Signal has demonstrated is basically how ad-tech works across Internet platforms. It harvests data from users based on their usage of these platforms. This data is sourced both from what is directly provided by users, as well as from the activity of the user on the platform.

Late last year, Cadbury in India came out with an ad campaign to call for support for local businesses. This Internet campaign used the location of the viewer of the ad to decide the variables — meaning that a viewer would be shown names of local businesses depending on where the ad was being viewed.

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