Facebook ‘Likes’ Used to Predict Personal Information

By Daniel Bean

Mar 13, 2013 7:00am
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Credit: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

This new research may have you watching what you “like” online. A study from the University of Cambridge in England says that Facebook likes can reveal a lot about your personal information.

The Cambridge study claimed to have had success in gleaning “highly sensitive personal attributes” such as sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender — just from what people liked online, according to the research paper.

The analysis surveyed over 58,000 U.S. Facebook users. The users’ likes were figured against their “Facebook profile information… psychometric test scores, and survey information,” said the study.

“It’s very easy to click the ‘like’ button, it’s seductive,” David Stillwell, one of the study authors, told AFP. “But you don’t realize that years later all those likes are building up against you.” Stillwell is a psychometrics researcher who worked on the project with colleagues from Cambridge University and Microsoft Research. The work has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The best results were seen when likes were used to guess automatically between what are called dichotomous variables — cases where there are just two choices. For instance, the researchers said, “African Americans and Caucasian Americans were correctly classified in 95 percent of cases, and males and females were correctly classified in 93 percent of cases.” Likewise, Christians and Muslims were correctly identified in 82 percent of cases, as were Democrats and Republicans with 85 percent accuracy.

“Sexual orientation was easier to distinguish among males (88 percent) than females (75 percent), which may suggest a wider behavioral divide (as observed from online behavior) between hetero- and homosexual males,” the report said.

READ: Facebook Graph Search: Now Is the Time to Go Over Your Privacy Settings

This may sound like stereotyping, but the study said, “Individual traits and attributes can be predicted to a high degree of accuracy based on records of users’ Likes.” For example, it said, likes for “Thunderstorms,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Curly Fries,” correlated to high intelligence, and likes for “I Love Being a Mom,” “Harley Davidson,” and “Lady Antebellum,” seemed to signal lower intelligence.

“Good predictors of male homosexuality included “No H8 Campaign,” “Mac Cosmetics,” and “Wicked The Musical,” whereas strong predictors of male heterosexuality included “Wu-Tang Clan,” “Shaq,” and “Being Confused After Waking Up From Naps,” the study said.

While those who participated in the study volunteered their information and likes (an average of 170 likes per user), not all users elect to keep their pages, posts, and likes public. However, the cautionary way in which the Cambridge study concludes may be reason enough for some to keep their information as private as possible.

“Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even one’s Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation, or political views that an individual may not have intended to share,” researchers said. “One can imagine situations in which such predictions, even if incorrect, could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.”

In an email to ABC News, Stilwell said, “Some of the information we predict is rather personal, such as IQ or the person’s political views. It’s debatable whether this data is ‘private’ or not.” He went on to say that based on the study, social media activity might someday be used to analyze psychological disorders.

“One challenge,” he wrote, “is that by the time the person is diagnosed, we’re not able to get an accurate social and behavioural history. But since social network data stores a history of user information, we could go back and see whether there was a certain pattern of speech, or changes in their behaviour, which could have predicted their later disorders.”

Online social networks like Facebook and Instagram are seemingly revising their privacy policies all the time, saying they are sensitive to customer concerns. Facebook said the findings from the Cambridge-Microsoft paper are really not new.

In a statement provided to ABC News, Facebook said, “The prediction of personal attributes based on publicly accessible information, such as ZIP codes, choice of profession, or even preferred music, has been explored in the past and is hardly surprising. No matter the vehicle for information — a  bumper sticker, yard sign, logos on clothing, or other data found online — it has already been proven that it is possible for social scientists to draw conclusions about personal attributes based on these characteristics.”

To go with their research, the authors of the Cambridge study created “The One Click Personality Test.” Any Facebook user can log in and allow the app to attempt an assessment of them based on their likes.  According to the researchers, “you are what you like.”

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