For a few hours, it looked like Signal had convinced Facebook to pull off one of the more brilliant self-owns ever created. Now, the two companies are sparring over the validity of the campaign and whether it ever really existed in the first place. Welcome to the internet, where everything is disputed and everyone is mad about it.
Our story begins with Signal, a messaging application that focuses on end-to-end encryption, and a blog post it published, titled “The Instagram ads Facebook won’t show you.” In it, Signal reports that it attempted to buy some Instagram ads to illustrate to people the kind of information FB collects about them. Ads like this:
According to Signal, Facebook disabled its advertising account because it wanted to show users these ads. The company is not subtle about the claim, writing, “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.”
Seems pretty straightforward. Company attempts to run ads showing people how invasive ads are, Facebook panics and overreacts, yanking advertising. Facebook, meanwhile, disputes that things played out that way in Tweets aimed at The Information’s Alex Heath:
“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.”
— Alex Heath (@alexeheath) May 4, 2021
Signal promptly shot back, claiming that FB would know these were real screenshots, and that Facebook should know it, because of the single screenshot in the Signal post. That screenshot (posted above) does appear to reference “unusual activity” on the account rather than an account ban. According to Facebook, all of this is a stunt and a fake attempt to drum up a real controversy. According to Signal, it’s all completely true.
When a (Maybe) Lie Scans True
Facebook is going to have an uphill battle persuading users that Signal isn’t telling the truth, even if the entire project was nothing but a publicity stunt. Facebook’s response — that some ads would have been rejected because its automatic category scanners would reject them — flies in the face of repeated reports of how the company continues to allow automated ad purchases that violate federal labor laws. On Facebook, ads for Domino’s pizza drivers were preferentially shown to men, while Instacart ads were preferentially shown to women. This was shown not to occur on LinkedIn, where ads were shown equally to both men and women. Other jobs showed similar patterns.
Yesterday, news reports revealed that Facebook allows advertisers to sell ads to teenagers when those ads promote alcohol, drug use, gambling, smoking, and developing an eating disorder. One ad that encourages teenagers to “Throw a skittles party like no other” was approved in 43 minutes.
A “skittles party” is the second-rarest form of mythological party known to not exist, right behind the “rainbow party,” a concept so farcical I remember being stunned by the stupidity of adults the first time I heard it in middle school. While the only people likely to receive this as a pro-drug message are people who have never actually done drugs, it probably isn’t great for Facebook to automatically clear this kind of advertising for young people.
Statistical Injection: The 10 most commonly prescribed medications in the United States are Atorvastatin, Levothyroxine, Lisinopril, Metformin, Amlodipine, Albuterol, Omeprazole, Losartan, and Simvastatin. These are used to treat high cholesterol, hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure, diabetes, angina, heart failure, asthma, acid reflux, high blood pressure (and kidney disease), and high cholesterol. None of them are known for their off-label “get you high as balls” alternative applications, and attempting to trip on blood pressure medication is the kind of bad life decision we assume most people don’t make more than once.
Funny, right? Funny enough that I threw it in here to lighten things up a bit. These next ones are less funny:
“Pro-ana” means pro-anorexia. There are websites that explicitly cater to, reinforce, and promote profoundly unhealthy methods of weight loss. The other ads tested in the study are straightforward examples of smoking, drink recipes, gambling, and dating, and all were approved to be shown to teenagers between 13-17.
There’s not much reason to believe that Facebook has made progress towards cleaning up this kind of problem. Reports of the company selling advertising in ways that violate federal law have been piling up for years. Even if Facebook is being truthful, there’s no chance it would change the tenor of the conversation around the company and its rampant data abuse. Facebook has been caught attempting to normalize data theft. It’s been caught in repeated lies about the nature of its algorithms and its own internal awareness about the growth of extremist content. So, for that matter, has just about everyone else.
The defining trait of the Big Data era is dishonesty. Nobody trusts Google’s replacement for the cookie, FloC, because no one trusts Google not to abusively collect data. Even if companies aren’t gathering your data to sell it to other people, like Facebook, they’ll happily collect it to give themselves an advantage and drive smaller third-party resellers from a market, like Amazon.
Not every corporation has behaved equally badly, but the climate of distrust created by those who have has thoroughly poisoned discourse on these topics. When it comes down to a choice between believing Signal and Facebook, I’m inclined to believe Signal, except that I’m also aware that Signal could also be trying to score points off Facebook. How many times have we seen individuals, organizations, companies, and even governments at various levels get something wrong because of a rush to judgment built on the basis of preconceived notions and various flavors of outrage?
Let’s put it this way: If you asked me which company is more likely to be lying, Facebook or Signal, I’d say Facebook. If you asked me which company is more likely to be taking advantage of the fact that its rival has a reputation for lying, especially where data collection is concerned, I’d say Signal. If the last two decades have taught me anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as trust between end-users and Silicon Valley — just incriminating documents we haven’t read yet.
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