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March 12, 2013

Facebook Likes More Revealing Than Users Realize: Study

Algorithms Often Accurately Predict Race, Religion, Political Leanings, Sexuality and Intelligence to Name a Few

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Fans of curly fries, thunderstorms and The Colbert report, tend to be highly intelligent while those who like Harley Davison, Sephora or Lady Antebellum are not quite so bright, a new study has revealed.

According to Cambridge University researchers, your Facebook likes may divulge more about you than you realize.

But can liking a friend’s post or a favorite brand really reveal your religion, political leanings, race, intelligence and sexual preferences?

According to the Cambridge researchers: Yes.

The study, released this week, proves Facebook likes can be used to dig up private information about almost any regular Facebook user.

Using an algorithm, researchers analyzed the data from more than 58,000 U.S. Facebook users, who volunteered their likes, demographic profiles and personality tests.

Using this system, researchers correctly differentiated between African-Americans and Caucasians 95 percent of the time and distinguished males from females 93 percent of the time.

Their predictions on determining religion (Christianity versus Islam) were accurate 82 percent of the time and they were able to distinguish Democrats from Republicans 85 percent of the time.

The algorithms even enabled the researchers to identify smokers, drinkers and drug users with surprising accuracy — 73, 70 and 65 percent respectively.

But what types of likes are giving people away? Researchers found gay men were apt to like Wicked The Musical, Britney Spears and Desperate Housewives while straight guys were more apt to like Wu-Tang Clan and Shaq. Predictions on male sexuality were correct 88 percent of the time. Female sexuality was a little harder to predict with researchers able to correctly guess 75 percent of the time.

The algorithms also revealed Facebook users who like the Hello Kitty brand tend to be young African-American Democrats with Christian backgrounds.

While the accuracy of such predictions might be good news for marketers — they can use such information to launch effective advertising campaigns — researchers say the ability to so accurately read people based solely on their social media interactions could be a serious threat to people’s privacy.

“The predictability of individual attributes from digital records of behavior may have considerable negative implications, because it can easily be applied to large numbers of people without obtaining their individual consent and without them noticing,” the study reads.

“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. 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. Importantly, given the ever-increasing amount of digital traces people leave behind, it becomes difficult for individuals to control which of their attributes are being revealed.”

Facebook is not the only site that can be used to discover personal details about Internet users, however.

“Similarity between Facebook likes and other widespread kinds of digital records, such as browsing histories, search queries, or purchase histories suggests that the potential to reveal users’ attributes is unlikely to be limited to likes,” the study reads. “Moreover, the wide variety of attributes predicted in this study indicates that, given appropriate training data, it may be possible to reveal other attributes as well.”

The findings come just a few weeks after Facebook announced its partnership with Datalogix, Epsilon, Acxiom, and BlueKai to improve targeted advertising on its network.

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