Facebook Fights Back

Who will win the ongoing battle between Facebook and Adblock Plus? The outcome will have sweeping ramifications for programmatic advertising, but it isn’t predictable.

We wrote last week of the opening salvos in this war, with Facebook announcing they will block all ad blockers, but particularly Adblock Plus, the German-based leader. ABP quickly appealed to the open source community for a way to block Facebook’s fix, and we are now in a series of amusing skirmishes between the two, as open source software guys come up with new ways to stymie Facebook, or Farcebook, as ABP minions call it.

If I had to bet, I would say that Facebook will lose the propaganda war, even if they ultimately prevail with blocking ABP. Why? The answer is rooted more in sociology than in algorithms.

First, the Facebook user is overwhelmingly young. Of the over 1.71 billion monthly active Facebook users, about 30% are in that key demographic, 25-34. Note that this 30% adds up to about 600 million users in that demo, almost twice the population of the U.S. One estimate claims that 50% of 18-24 year-olds go on Facebook when they wake up, according to the Social Skinny.



That is a lot of young people. And many of today’s college and high school kids are the same young idealists who flocked to the Bernie Sanders bandwagon. They distrust big corporations, and had no trouble with the Socialist label attached to their candidate. In any conflict between a big corporate entity like Facebook, and a young, seemingly altruistic outfit like ABP, many younger users will side with the ad blockers. Moreover, using an ad blocker is “cool,” the kind of thing that young people admire. ABP plays this up big.

ABP Knows Its Young Audience
The ABP spokesman is not some uptight, accented German, but an affable young American named Ben Williams, who blogs seemingly righteous stuff about freedom and choice. His latest blog post is perfectly aimed. ABP knows its young audience: “We clearly feel like giving users control of their Internet experience is better than taking it away, and it’s disheartening that a company like Facebook would abuse everyone’s experience of their site by forcing that experience into a one-size-fits-all, see-the-ads-or-else tube. The Internet just doesn’t work that way. At least it shouldn’t.”

Even conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal seem to back up this conclusion, with its headline, “Facebook Will Force Advertising on Ad Blocking Users.” One can almost hear Ben Williams echoing, “Exactly.”

Facebook and others can counter all they want that ABP’s whitelisting practices amount to blackmail, that argument doesn’t reach most youth, who think Facebook makes obscene profits anyway.

By contrast, Facebook’s arguments sound like corporate spiel because it is corporate spiel. On August 9, it posted this: “For the past few years at Facebook we’ve worked to better understand people’s concerns with online ads. What we’ve heard is that people don’t like to see ads that are irrelevant to them or that disrupt or break their experience. People also want to have control over the kinds of ads they see. As a result of what we’ve learned, we’ve introduced tools to help people control their experience, improved how we decide which ads to show and created new ad formats that complement, rather than detract from, people’s experience online.”

Notice how this concedes half the points made by ad blockers, that some ads are irrelevant or disruptive? Telling young people that Facebook offers good, rather than bad ads? Will that work? Remember that ABP itself wants to appoint a committee that will decide on acceptable ads, not let Facebook do it. It may be perfectly obvious to any MediaPost reader that there would be no Facebook without some kind of ad revenue, but that doesn’t matter to the young audience that has racked up 300 million Adblock Plus downloads.

We downloaded ABP software last week, and have been using it since, with a Safari browser. It took about 30 seconds.

Sticking It To Corporate America
This comes down to an almost existential question that all MediaPost readers should ask themselves. We work in a world supported by ads. We are writing about advertising, and we see it as a vital industry (if not the most popular one in America). At least Don Draper was cool, right? But, given the choice, would you use an ad blocker if the thought occurred to you? Is your decision to not download one a statement in favor of our industry, or are you just lazy?

Hundreds of millions of Facebook users have no qualms about disrupting Facebook’s revenue stream. As a matter of fact, it’s probably the safest, most legal way to stick it in the eye of corporate America, other than shoplifting.

We think much of the publishing community does not understand what is going on here. In a bizarre piece, The New Yorker weighed in on this August 12. The point seems to be that Facebook is moving against ABP now because it will give them a further huge advantage over most online publishers, who lack engineers who are good enough to foil the open source community. This could have something to do with it, but we think it’s more about taking a stand now, before advertisers start voting with their feet. P&G told the WSJ recently that it was going to cut back on Facebook advertising. That could have set off alarm bells.

The New Yorker itself, and Condé Nast in general, clearly lack the resources to fight ABP. If you go to with an ad blocker, the slots for ads are replaced with magazine subscription links. That sounds like defeat to me.

Online publishers want to believe that ABP will lose this war. We note Fortune’s piece August 12, “Here's Why Facebook Is Always Going to Win the Ad-Blocking War.” The author claims that because Facebook has unlimited engineers and resources, they can make ads that look precisely to an algorithm like Facebook content, and ABP and others won’t know what to block.

But if one compares Facebook’s resources, with the clever and seemingly endless abilities of the open source community, which came up with a work-around for Facebook’s first effort in only a few hours, I am not so sure. Think of those clever hackers out there who can access the DNC’s email and who knows what else. And then think about all those people you know who think Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are such big heroes. In that light, the inevitable victory of Facebook is not so pre-determined.

5 comments about "Facebook Fights Back".
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  1. Patrick Stroh from Brunner / data science, analytics, August 18, 2016 at 8:28 a.m.

    "the clever and seemingly endless abilities of the open source community" - yep.  

  2. John Motavalli from Freelance, August 18, 2016 at 9:55 a.m.

    ABP has updated the struggle on its blog. Ben Williams posted a long piece, here is an excerpt.

    While Facebook appears to have had the last word for now, this, friends, is a long game. That being said, a few other ad blockers have apparently found workarounds to Facebook’s latest circumvention. Better yet, Princeton University just started offering something they’re calling Facebook Ad Highlighter, which very unambiguously points out that a post is sponsored.

    This is instructive, because while Facebook may have slashed and burned all the immediate ad indicators, there are countless ways to work around this. For instance, blocking ads based on the visible “Sponsored” tag is a little more difficult, because that element is buried deeper in the post itself. But there are at least two ways that this too will become a clear indicator that allows blockers to block.

    What we hope users will remember is that there is a gargantuan, unstoppable community that has already contributed to several workarounds; there are academics and other ad blockers working on solutions, too; a few commenters in our last post said they’d found their own workaround; and so on … Facebook is going against the will of the user and that typically doesn’t end well. Facebook may have started this game of ping pong, but out on the open internet the user always wins.

  3. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, August 18, 2016 at 12:35 p.m.

    All of this reminds me of the classic Mad Magazine comic strip, "Spy vs. Spy", originally a satire of the Cold War. The two characters wear identical trench coats, hats and sunglasses, only one is all white and the other is all black. In each strip, one finds a way to outsmart the other, who comically has already prepared a hilariously clever countermeasure.  I'm sorry, Mr. Zuckerberg, you should know this, but now that you've challenged a world of professional and amateur coders, there's just no way you will outmaneuver them for long.

  4. Juliana Casale from Nanigans, August 18, 2016 at 4:50 p.m.

    Let's say the coders win and Facebook's ads get blocked by the masses. Facebook's ad revenue tanks and it is forced to shut down. How is that a good outcome for anyone?

  5. John Motavalli from Freelance, August 19, 2016 at 4:46 a.m.

    Dean, you are right, I am not sure how smart it was to challenge the open source community. Let's say Google is always the smartest guy in the room. They paid off Adblock Plus. It must be chump change to Google, and look at the mess they avoided. Juliana, I don't think Facebook is going to shut down any time soon, but let me be clear, I am not advocating for Adblock Plus. I do see their point of view, though, as it is pervasive with a certain element online.

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