The U.K.’s Information Commissioner, Canadian Elizabeth Denham, issued a warning earlier this year to anyone with a social media account: You are what you click.
Denham warned of the rise of online “micro-targeting,” a marketing strategy that involves turning a social media profile into a psychological profile, in order to create specifically targeted advertisements.
Micro-targeting has become a popular tool for both businesses and political campaigns to sell products and win votes. And psychologists say the information gleaned from someone’s online profile can allow advertisers to know someone better than their own spouse.
“These companies have more information on their customers than any company has ever had in history,” says Jay Van Bavel, an assistant professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University.
To understand the potential of micro-targeting ads, psychologists point to a model developed in the 1980s to asses someone’s personality based on five key traits, known as the “big five” or by the acronym OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
WATCH BELOW: Micro-targeting is an advertising practice that’s become big business on social media platforms.
The “big five” model has become a standard technique in the field of psychometrics: if researchers know enough about someone to give a score in each of those five categories, they can make a host of predictions about that person, from their race and religion to their politics and sexuality.
For years, this model was hampered by a lack of data; researchers simply didn’t have enough information about most people and were forced to rely on patients completing lengthy, highly-personal questionnaires. But that was before the internet and tech giants such as Facebook.
“Your Facebook profile is filled with hundreds and perhaps thousands of variables about you,” says Taylor Owen, an expert in Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.
“What Facebook offers advertisers is the ability to select very specific criteria and then have Facebook match you with people who meet those very particular characteristics.”
In 2013, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Cambridge tried to put Facebook’s psychometric powers to the test. They built a computer model to assess someone’s personality using their Facebook likes, by translating a user’s likes on everything from celebrities to sports into the “big five” psychometric categories.
The study surveyed 58,000 volunteers and the model was able to accurately predict if someone was black or white 95 per cent of the time, if a man was homosexual or heterosexual with 88 per cent accuracy, and if the user voted Democrat or Republican with 85 per cent accuracy. The model even did a decent job of predicting someone’s relationship status or whether they used drugs or drank alcohol.
The more Facebook likes available, the more intimate the predictions became. With 70 likes, the algorithm was better at guessing someone’s personality traits than their own roommate. With 150 likes, the computer could beat a family member. With 300 Facebook likes, the computer model could know someone better than their own spouse.
“Now we start having the ability to target ads to people based on much more complex algorithms,” says Rob Smith, an expert in Digital Marketing at Ohio State University. “So instead of ‘people who are between the ages of 40 and 60 tend to watch this show,’ it’s ‘I would like to target someone who is 27-years-old, who lives in this place, who likes tennis and is interested in buying a new tennis racket right now.’”
Smith says micro-targeted ads have also become a popular tool for political campaigns.
“In the political sphere, I would argue that it’s very effective,” he says.
The recent Facebook data scandal sparked allegations that the campaigns behind Brexit and President Donald Trump had used personal data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their consent to produce micro-targeted political ads. But studies have shown that even micro-targeted ads have trouble convincing people to change their vote or their political beliefs. They are, however, an effective tool for getting out the vote and encouraging people to act on their pre-existing beliefs.
“What we’re being presented with is content that is intended just to nudge a little bit in a direction, to make us not vote, or make us vote for a particular person, or make us distrust a group. And that has a really pernicious effect, I think, on our civic discourse,” Owen says.
“It’s one thing to influence my purchasing behaviour, it is very different to influence how I vote.”
His warning to consumers and voters alike: If you’re using social media or visiting a website for free, that’s probably because the website is selling you.