12 Mar 2013

Think twice before you ‘like’: Facebook reveals your secrets

Do you “like” Lady Gaga or curly chips? Telling Facebook if you do or not reveals everything from your sexuality to your IQ, says a new study, which highlights the extent of the “like” economy.

Do you “like” Channel 4 News on Facebook?

We are still waiting to see what this reveals about people who do – the Cambridge University Study into online privacy on Facebook did not take Channel 4 News “likes” into account.

But in studying the seemingly random “likes” of 58,000 Facebook users, researchers were able to match preferences in music, food, or films, with more fundamental and personal characteristics, such as sexuality, intellect, race or political leanings.

“Your likes may be saying more about you than you realise,” said Cambridge University researcher David Stillwell, one of the study’s authors.

At the front end, a Facebook “like” comes across as this very social form of socialising, while at the same time turning them into forms of data not just for Facebook, but also for third parties and profilers. Carolin Gerlitz, University of Amsterdam

In 95 per cent of cases, the algorithm model used by researchers was able to determine African Americans from Caucasian. Gay men were picked out 88 per cent of the time, and the difference between Democrat and Republican was determined in 85 per cent of cases. Drug use was determined from “likes” in 65 per cent of cases and in 60 per cent of cases, researchers could statistically ascertain when users’ parents had divorced before they were 21.

Some of best predictors of intelligence were, surprisingly, an expressed “like” for thunderstorms and “curly fries”, whereas low intelligence was associated with people who “like” the statement “I love being a good mom” or Harley Davidsons.

In terms of sexuality, likes for Wicked the Musical had a strong correlation with gay men, while the statement “being confused after waking up from naps” was a strong predictor of male heterosexuality.

The price of a ‘like’

According to Facebook’s 2012 figures, there are around 2.7 billion new likes every day.

But this study shows that our endorsements of everything from a clothing sale, to a pop star, are revealing much more about ourselves than we think – and are in fact, a free gift of huge amounts of personal data to third parties.

“We all need to be more sensitive,” social media analyst Ian Maude, from Enders Analysis, told Channel 4 News, adding that we are subconsciously allowing more and more personal information to become public.

“There is clearly a trade-off between having access to these services, which are ostensibly free, and the information we’re giving up.”

Most predictive likes:

Gay men
> Wicked the Musical, Mac Cosmetics and Glee
High intellect > The Daily Show, Lord of the Rings and Curly Fries
Low intellect > I love being a good Mom, Harley Davidson, Sephora
Smoking > Cradle of filth, Rob Zombie
Non-smoking > Honda, Rock and How to make a girl smile
Parents separated pre-21 > “Never apologise for what you feel; it’s like saying sorry for being real”
Parents not separated > “Watching people’s lives fall apart via status updates and news feeds”
Extroverted > Michael Jordan, Dancing and Beerpong
Shy > Fanfiction.net, anime and programming

Read the full study published in the PNAS Journal here
and visit youarwhatyoulike.com where the study participants’ information was reviewed.

Facebook launched its like button in 2009, and the small thumbs-up symbol has since become ubiquitous on the social network and across the web, as various brands encourage us to “like” them via share buttons on their own pages.

However the apparently innocent “like” could have far-reaching consequences offline if it can be used to statistically predict something much more sensitive.

“I appreciate automated book recommendations, or Facebook selecting the most relevant stories for my newsfeed. However, I can imagine situations in which the same data and technology is used to predict political views or sexual orientation, posing threats to freedom or even life,” said Michal Kosinski, one of the study’s authors, from the University of Cambridge Psychometrics Centre.

“Just the possibility of this happening could deter people from using digital technologies and diminish trust between individuals and institutions.”

While the Cambridge University study, published in the PNAS journal, assessed active “likes”, Facebook still manages to retrieve users’ data through Facebook cookies placed on machines via Facebook Connect.

The ‘like’ economy

The study highlights the far-reaching implications of the “like” economy, in terms of how a social networking tool assists in the collection and tracking of data, says Carolin Gerlitz from the University of Amsterdam.

“The really interesting thing about the Facebook ‘like’, is that at the front end, it comes across as this very social form of socialising, while at the same time turning them into forms of data not just for Facebook, but also for third parties and profilers of data,” she told Channel 4 News.

I can imagine situations in which the same data and technology is used to predict political views or sexual orientation, posing threats to freedom or even life. Michal Kosinski, study author

Facebook makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it is trying to tempt advertisers with the platform’s potential of personalisation adverts.

But Ms Gerlitz says the inference of “likes”, as demonstrated in the PNAS study, can be used for more wide-reaching profiling and categorisation, such as job suitability, event invitations or networking.

“Other forms of profiling become possible, that allow minimal data to determine whether people fall into particular groups, and might have certain preferences,” she told Channel 4 News.

How to make ‘likes’ private:
> Go to your timeline, and click on “likes” below your cover photo.
> Click “edit” in the top-right hand corner.
> Click on the drop-down menu for Favourites and select “only me” or another audience aside from “private”.
> Do the same for other selected “likes” for example “music” or “film”.

Facebook and privacy

According to Facebook, the study is not very surprising. “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,” Facebook’s Frederic Wolens said in a written statement.

The company was also keen to point out that users can change their privacy settings to keep what they “like” private. Since the 2011 ruling which said Facebook violated users’ privacy by asking them to share too much, the company has agreed to its privacy settings being reviewed and to informing users of changes to how it handles data.

Users can debate whether or not privacy settings are difficult to navigate themselves.

But the study authors advise users to think twice before they “like”.