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?

An attempt by instant messaging app Signal to use Instagram ads to demonstrate how Facebook collects and sells user data resulted in its Instagram account getting blocked. Signal competes with WhatsApp, which along with Instagram, is owned by Facebook.

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What Signal claims

The messaging app claims companies like Facebook collect user data from its bouquet of apps “in order to sell visibility into people and their lives”.

In a blog post, Signal wrote how Facebook’s own tools divulge partly 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 added.

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 variables. These 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”. This 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 quotes are variables and depend on who the ad is targeted.

Another such example of an ad was: 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”.

What was Facebook’s response to these ads?

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. 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,” Signal wrote in its blog.

Is this the first time Signal has taken a shot at Facebook?

No. 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 to this, 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.”

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