Facebook ‘likes’ are a terrifyingly accurate window into your soul


How well do you think your Facebook account knows you?

As the power of the “like” grows, political campaigns and companies are harnessing it to influence and track the public’s behavior. Last month, Congress repealed laws passed by the Federal Communications Commission on what data internet service providers could collect on users. In a nutshell: Your browser history may now be sold to advertisers without your consent. This will allow for “incredibly intrusive data-mining” by companies online, said Cory Doctorow, activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online privacy.

Facebook also reportedly knows more about us than most people may realize. The company carried out research on the psychological states of teenagers and found “moments when young people need a confidence boost” that could be used for advertisers, “The Australian” newspaper reported last month. (A Facebook spokesman told MarketWatch at the time that the study was not used to target vulnerable teenagers with advertisements, regretted that this study was carried out and said the contents of this study should not have been shared with a company.)

The influence of the social media giant also came into sharp focus during the polarizing 2016 US presidential election. At that time, analysts suggested the techniques of software and data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, a company that claims to use data to change people’s behavior, played a role in the results, Motherboard reported in January. The extent to which the company influenced voters has been called into question, but the research it’s based on has broader implications.

Fake news stories trended on Facebook’s news feed in the run-up to the 2016 election — an issue the company has vowed to fight. In recent weeks, the social network deleted thousands of accounts as it fights fake news and has undertaken a major advertising effort to help users recognize and report fake news when they see it. (Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on the issues raised in this article.)

But even real news stories can have a major effect when they are shared by users or appear as sponsored posts. Michael Fauscette, chief research officer at peer-to-peer business review platform G2 Crowd, said both sides of the political divide used news stories to target Facebook users in different parts of the country — particularly swing states in the south and midwest — during the 2016 election. Democratic voters who were shown content about candidate Hillary Clinton being ahead in the polls, for instance, may have become complacent and less likely to vote.

What your Facebook ‘likes’ say about you

But we share far more than we perhaps intend when we check into establishments, share news stories and ‘like’ products publicly on Facebook, studies shows. After you “like” just 10 Facebook pages, advertisers (or political campaigns) can get to know you as well as a colleague, according to research from Cambridge University in the UK, and after 70 “likes” as much can be deduced about you as a close friend knows. And after 150 “likes”? You’ve essentially given up as much about yourself as your parents know. (Users, of course, can make their likes private).

Michal Kosinski, a data scientist and psychologist who developed these models, said his 2012 analysis of 58,000 volunteers using Facebook predicted a user’s skin color with 95 percet accuracy. Developed in part by Kosinski during his fellowship at the Psychometrics Centre of Cambridge University in 2008, this model also predicted sexual orientation with 88 percent accuracy, and political affiliation with 85 percent accuracy. He worked with fellow Cambridge University student David Stillwell to create a Facebook quiz that could determine specific and unique psychological traits.

Participants were analyzed through “Big Five” — a well-known system based on five traits developed by two psychologists in the 1980s to categorize personalities. These include extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and whether or not you are open to new experiences. Soon, thousands of Facebook users had taken the quiz, eager to learn their psychological profile, and Kosinski and Stillwell had — almost inadvertently — aggregated the largest existing network of psychometric data paired with Facebook likes.

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