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Facebook is right: Signal’s viral ads are just a publicity stunt

Published May 6th, 2021 6:50AM EDT
Signal vs. Facebook
Image: Urupong/Adobe

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Signal just scored a massive win against Facebook by using Facebook’s terrifying user tracking practices against the social network in the best possible way. Signal wanted to run ads on Instagram that would have exposed the real reasons why users would see the Signal ads in their feeds. Signal’s ads would have included examples of personal data collected from the targeted user, exposing the way Facebook harvests user data to make money. Signal said in a blog post that Facebook banned its advertising account as a result, so it went ahead and published those examples online anyway.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook has tried to defend itself, claiming that Signal never tried to run those ads and that it didn’t shut down their account for trying to do so. Facebook claims that Signal’s goal wasn’t to run the ads in the first place, “it was about getting publicity.”

“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,” Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne said in a statement. “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.”

That last sentence is quite the paradox about publicity. The entire purpose of advertising campaigns is to get publicity. No matter what the outcome, Signal would have gotten that publicity. The ads on Instagram, if approved, would have gone viral. Signal’s claim that they weren’t approved went viral as well. Either way, Signal wins here, no matter how you try to turn it. It was all a great Signal publicity stunt.

Signal ad examples that Facebook banned from Instagram. Image source: Signal

Facebook’s response also highlights another problem with user tracking. The company says that its policies prohibit ads that “assert that you have a specific medical condition or sexual orientation.” But Facebook doesn’t dispute that advertisers like Signal might have used that sort of personal user data for personalized ads targeting groups with a specific medical condition or sexual orientation.

Signal replied to Facebook’s response, saying that the screenshots it used in its blog post show that Facebook did disable the Signal ad account and that it tried to run the ads.

Facebook’s Osborne replied the screenshots that show Signal’s banned advertising account are from early March when the account was disabled “for a few days due to an unrelated payments issue.”

“The ads themselves were never rejected as they were never set by Signal to run. The ad account has been available since early March, and the ads that don’t violate our policies could have run since then,” the spokesperson said.

Facebook makes it sound like Signal has engineered this situation as a stunt to get more visibility. Even if Facebook is correct, it doesn’t alter Signal’s win, although Signal could further clarify the situation. Or just run the ads as planned, if Facebook says it can.

Also, Facebook comment that the ads were not rejected and Signal could have run them isn’t helpful. Facebook practically confirms that Signal could have targeted Instagram users in the creepy ways Signal suggested it could. In other words, Facebook doesn’t deny that it collects the data Signal highlighted in its ads.

Further escalating the conflict will only hurt Facebook, especially at a time when people can actually block Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp from tracking them across iPhone and iPad apps.

Reactions on Twitter to the Signal vs. Facebook ad saga are more likely to favor Signal than Facebook.

Signal’s attack on Facebook isn’t surprising either. Signal is one of the chat apps that WhatsApp users have flocked to after Facebook announced that WhatsApp would share more user data with Facebook. Signal simply takes advantage of the increased talk about user tracking and privacy to steal more WhatsApp users.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.