News Column

Facebook 'Likes' May Reveal Too Much

March 12, 2013

What you "like" on Facebook may reveal more about you than you think: Researchers say they were able to accurately predict personal details including age, race, IQ, sexual orientation, political views and personality traits from Facebook "likes" alone.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, analyzed more than 58,000 U.S. Facebook users' "likes" -- photos, friends' status updates, pages for products, sports, musicians, restaurants, popular websites -- and created statistical models to predict personal details.

They found the highest accuracy for race and gender, correctly distinguishing blacks and whites in 95 percent of cases; males and females in 93%; and Christians and Muslims in 82 percent. Sexual orientation was easier to tell in males (88%) than females (75 percent).

Findings were published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sam Gosling, a psychologist at the University of Texas-Austin, calls this a "landmark study" because it illustrates "how things are no longer ephemeral." He has been studying Facebook behavior since 2006.

"You 'like' something. You leave a comment on somebody's wall. They are now recorded in a way that machines can calibrate and measure them with great accuracy," he says. "Together, they add up to substantially more information from which you can make quite reasonably accurate predictions."

Says psychologist Michal Kosinski, the study's lead author, "It's the current state of the digital world."

Some companies reward users' "likes" with discounts and offers.

Participants gave researchers access to their Facebook pages and took online personality and IQ tests, which researchers used to corroborate their results.

The study found "likes" that are the "best predictors of high intelligence" included "Thunderstorms," "The Colbert Report," "Science" and "Curly Fries." Low intelligence correlated with liking "Sephora," "Harley Davidson" and "Lady Antebellum." Researchers had no explanation why.

The study also found that "good predictors of male homosexuality" included liking "No H8 Campaign," "Mac Cosmetics" and "Wicked The Musical." Strong predictors of male heterosexuality included liking "Wu-Tang Clan," "Shaq" and "Being Confused After Waking Up From Naps."

Fred Wolens, a spokesman for Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif., says the findings are "hardly surprising. No matter the vehicle for information -- a bumper sticker, yard sign, logos on clothing or other data found online -- it has been proven that it is possible for social scientists to draw conclusions about personal attributes based on these characteristics."

Rebecca Lieb, a digital media analyst at the Altimeter Group in New York, agrees. "Data is being collected at every stage of our lives."

The study also suggests "negative implications for personal privacy."

David Jacobs, consumer privacy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says other studies have similar findings. "It's one of the implications of Big Data. ... Lots of information makes for certain inferences and sensitive predictions."

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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