In a blog post released in May, messaging app Signal claimed that, after attempting to run a series of targeted Instagram ads highlighting how Facebook data can be used for advertising, Facebook blocked their ads. In response to this, Facebook told The Information’s Alex Heath that “this is a stunt by Signal, who never even tried to run these ads.”
Regardless of whether this campaign was launched on Instagram or not, the swell of conversation surrounding it has fulfilled Signal’s aim to shed light on the issue of Facebook’s targeted advertising and often murky policies.
Whilst it is no secret that Facebook collects its users’ data and uses it to inform its targeted advertising, many of Facebook’s users are unaware of the extent of this data collection and how much of it is shared with advertisers.
As such, the Instagram posts demonstrate how much Facebook can expose about its users. Constructed as a blue placard, the posts all riff around the message ‘you got this ad because…’, followed by a series of statements detailing personal facts about the user, highlighting the key terms Facebook would collect in a darker shade of blue.
For example, in one advert, the key terms include: teacher, Leo, single, Moscow, sketch comedy and drag. Through such adverts, Facebook’s algorithm collates a complete profile of its users to an intimate and unnerving degree. Alongside the blog post, Signal’s CEO Moxie Marlinspike tweeted another ad that also showed how a user could be targeted based on their job, location, diet preferences and interests.
By demonstrating the depth of the data that can be collected from Facebook users, these ads are an incredibly effective means of helping users visualise and understand the privacy terms they are agreeing to, which are more often than not hidden amongst long privacy policies and small print.
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It is undeniable that such ads would be damaging for Facebook, which is a company that relies on data collection for its targeted advertising practices. Whilst banning the ads may seem like an extreme cause of action, such a knee-jerk reaction from Facebook was expected due to the scrutiny the company has faced surrounding data privacy in recent times.
This controversy saw many users migrating from WhatsApp to alternative apps, such as Signal. As such, Facebook would not want Signal’s advertising campaign to cause another such loss of user base.
In their blog, Signal also claimed that, in Facebook’s world, ‘the only acceptable usage is to hide what you’re doing from your audience’. In the past, Facebook has tried to cover up or avoid conversations regarding their data collection practices rather than being transparent about them.
In 2019, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was running for office, ran a series of ads and announced her plan to spit Facebook and other big tech companies to redistribute their power. She believes in more regulation for Big Tech companies, a talking point that has been brought to the forefront of governmental attention in recent years.
Facebook said that it blocked the ads because they violated its rules about using the company’s corporate logo, but later reinstated these ads. Due to such instances, it would not be an unusual assessment to believe Signal’s claims. Regardless, tech companies such as Facebook need to engage with these conversations surrounding data privacy in order for regulations and policies to be developed which benefit users, governments and tech companies alike.
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It is understandable that such campaigns would be a concern for Facebook and other social media sites which use Big Data to inform their targeted advertising. Facebook relies on data, as does the success of its advertising platform. Facebook credited its 48% revenue increase in the first quarter of 2021 on the increasing price of its ads and the 12% rise in its ad impressions.
Additionally, with the rollout of Apple’s new privacy update for iOS apps in early 2021, app developers will be required to ask for permission to collect and track users’ data, which could see a limiting on the extent of the data which Facebook would be allowed to collect.
It is important to remember that, whilst some might view this as a form of activism against big tech, this campaign was primarily intended as a great source of advertising for Signal; a messaging app with a core tenant to protect the privacy of its users. When Signal states that “companies like Facebook aren’t building technology for you, they’re building technology for your data”, they promote themselves as a service with user-centric design with less data collection.
However, this ad campaign also shows the efficacy of Facebook’s data collection and algorithms in its targeting advertising. For small businesses, this could be a promising revelation, as they need to utilise social media advertising to effectively reach their target audience and make their brand more well-known. By using targeted advertising on Facebook and its associated platforms, such businesses will be able to reach a wider audience and might maximise the return from their advertising.
As ever, it appears that the issue at play here centres around transparency. Signal’s campaign promotes transparency, bringing attention to Facebook’s otherwise obfuscated privacy policies. However, if Facebook were to be clearer about the way they collect and use data and confront these criticisms, this would allow users to give fully informed consent to their data usage when using the app.
Users and businesses may still opt in to these policies if they believe that the personalised experience they would receive from the app is worth the data cost. Such transparency would thus create a more ethical business model without necessarily hampering advertising revenue to a serious degree.
Changes in the regulation of how much data such apps can collect, however, is something that would impact Facebook’s ad revenue stream. As such, if the world of tech continues its focus on increasing the protection of personal data, we may see considerable changes in the way companies such as Facebook operate for them to remain profitable.