Ever since the controversial WhatsApp policy update about sharing user data with Facebook was announced, the backlash has been furious. Despite all that negative feedback, the social media titan is not backing down and has set a deadline of May 15 to either accept it or lose access to your WhatsApp account. What followed was a migration of users, with Signal and Telegram being the prime beneficiaries. Facebook and Signal are now publicly duking it out over Instagram ads that take a dig at Facebook’s not-so-stellar reputation around user privacy.
Why are Facebook and Signal feuding?
So, Signal says that it wanted to run some ads on Instagram that highlighted the vast amount of data that Facebook collects and then sells to advertising partners. “Companies like Facebook aren’t building technology for you, they’re building technology for your data. They collect everything they can from FB, Instagram, and WhatsApp in order to sell visibility into people and their lives” the company said in its blog post. Here are some of the ads:
However, Facebook rejected the ads and shut down Signal’s Instagram account. Just in case you’re missing the bigger picture here, Facebook owns both Instagram and WhatsApp. Going a step further, Signal shared a screenshot which clearly says that its ad account was disabled. It is worth noting here the image background shows March as the month when all this drama apparently unfolded.
Facebook retorts that this was a stunt
Facebook’s response: pic.twitter.com/xhPTVfmLBQ
— Alex Kantrowitz (@Kantrowitz) May 5, 2021
Facebook, on the other hand, has challenged Signal’s claim. Spokesperson Joe Osborne mentioned that the screenshots date back to March, and that the account was disabled over an unrelated payment issue. Osborne subsequently noted that the ads were not rejected by Facebook, and that Signal never intended to actually run these ads on Instagram in the first place.
2/2: 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.
— joe osborne (@joeosborne) May 5, 2021
Not one to back off, Signal counters that it actually tried to go live with those ads, but they were rejected and the account was subsequently disabled. Signal also shared another screenshot which shows that the ad account’s activity has been restricted.
Who’s speaking the truth?
We absolutely did try to run these. The ads were rejected, and Facebook disabled our ad account. These are real screenshots, as Facebook should know. pic.twitter.com/6ZKiA6nr2e
— Signal (@signalapp) May 5, 2021
From what we’ve seen so far, it is difficult to arrive at a conclusion as to who is speaking the truth here. Signal has been proactively advertising its service as the pro-privacy alternative to WhatsApp, even adding more features to its app to lure new users. Facebook, on the other hand, has been trying to reason that its policy change won’t affect your regular conversations as they remain end-to-end encrypted, and that your data will only be shared if users interact with a WhatsApp business account.
Here’s the big picture
WhatsApp is currently the most popular instant messaging service in the world with over two billion monthly active users. But Facebook has bigger ambitions from the platform which it acquired for a cool $19 billion. Aside from turning it into a marketplace where you can interact with a business and buy products/services easily, the company also has a peer-to-peer payment service that will facilitate transactions.
Called Whatsapp Pay (or WhatsApp Payments), the service has received the green light in Brazil after a lengthy regulatory investigation and is awaiting a wider rollout in India. Interestingly, India and Brazil happen to be two of the biggest markets for WhatsApp. Signal, on the other hand, is dipping its toes in the world of peer-to-payments in cryptocurrencies.
If users lose trust in the privacy offered by WhatsApp and jump to other platforms such as Telegram – and of course, Signal – it would also mean losing a huge opportunity from the whole ‘WhatsApp Business’ and payment service ambitions. Was this whole Instagram ad rollercoaster a PR stunt by Signal to again bring Facebook under the privacy scanner, especially as the May 15 deadline looms? We don’t know yet. But it is clear that Facebook is not taking this incident lightly, especially when the challenge comes from a platform that can steal its audience with the promise of a more secure communications experience.
Of course, Facebook is breaking its promise of always keeping WhatsApp free and protecting user data, but there is a whole pattern to such behavior. My colleague Adam Z. Lein argues in this article that be it WhatsApp, Signal, or Telegram, you should always read between the fine lines and stop being naive about such changes.