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No, Facebook Didn’t Kill Signal’s Ads that Show How Much Facebook Knows About You. The Truth Is Much Worse

Earlier this week, I came across a blog post from Signal, the encrypted messaging app. I’ve written about Signal previously 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 considered a more privacy-friendly messaging app due to its encryption and the fact that it doesn’t monetize user data. The blog post highlighted that fact by describing the company’s attempt to run targeted ads on Instagram, which it says were rejected by Facebook.

“We created a multi-variant targeted ad designed to show you the personal data that Facebook collects about you and sells access to. The ad would simply display some of the information collected about the viewer which the advertising platform uses. Facebook was not into that idea.”

The post includes screenshots of what Signal says are “some examples of the targeted ads that you’ll never see on Instagram.” It also includes a screenshot of what appears to be Signal’s deactivated Facebook ad account.

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The fact that Facebook killed Signal’s ads because they revealed exactly how much information Facebook knows about you definitely caught my attention. I’ve written plenty about how Facebook’s entire business model is about tracking everything you do online and then monetizing your personal information

This appeared to be the perfect example of how Facebook is fighting to keep users from knowing the extent to which they are being tracked. Except, in this case, it appears that the entire thing was a stunt by Signal. 

In response to my questions, a Facebook spokesperson told me the following:

This is a stunt by Signal, who never even tried to actually run these ads–and we didn’t shut down their ad account for trying to do so. If Signal had tried to run the ads, a couple of them would have been rejected because our advertising policies prohibit ads that assert that 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 about getting publicity.

When I asked Signal, the company’s head of growth and communications, Jun Harada, confirmed to me that “no impressions were served,” and the developer’s ad account on Facebook is not “deactivated permanently.”

To be honest, Harada’s response to me is problematic. It doesn’t actually address my question, which was, “did Facebook not approve the ads, or did they remove them after they ran on Instagram for a period of time?” To say “no impressions were served,” is mostly a non-answer that doesn’t help anyone understand what actually happened.

Likewise, its response on Twitter to Facebook’s assertion that it didn’t reject the ads, confuses the matter even more: 

There are a few obvious reasons this is a problem. The first is that it’s really hard to know what really happened, but it looks a lot like Signal is playing a little loose with the truth. What exactly does Signal mean when it says Facebook “rejected” its ads?

And, while Signal says Facebook deactivated its account, Facebook says that was a few months ago due to a completely unrelated issue. I followed up with Harada to clarify, but I didn’t receive a response.

Here’s why this matters: Trust is by far your company’s most valuable asset. That’s especially the case when your company builds a product entirely built around the premise of protecting user data and privacy. If it turns out Signal is willing to mislead people in the name of scoring a few PR points, that creates doubt. 

Maybe an even bigger issue, however, is that its attempt to draw attention to a very real issue with Facebook will be taken less seriously because of that doubt. Facebook absolutely tracks users in a way that most objective observers would agree is a gross violation of privacy. 

Facebook has also gone to great lengths in its public battle with Apple over iOS 14.5 to keep users from being exposed to the amount of data the company collects and uses to target advertising. Highlighting that fact is important, but doing it in a way that is misleading, or as a PR stunt doesn’t help your cause. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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