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Your Facebook “likes” expose more than you think, according to computer scientists

Quick question: how many posts have you given a thumbs-up on your Facebook newsfeed today?

Right, that’s what I thought. Just like me, you probably have no idea.

And yet these mindless acts of appreciation give away much more about ourselves than we realize.

In a stunning TED talk (see below) Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, Jennifer Golbeck, clarifies that computer scientists these days are able to build models that can predict all sorts of hidden attributes for everything that you don’t even know you’re sharing online.

Predicting your pregnancy before even your parents know about it

This counts for your actions on Facebook as well as your dealings with other companies. Golbeck gives the incredible example of a 15-year-old girl who received a flyer from Target with coupons for baby bottles and diapers — two weeks before she told her parents that she was pregnant.

How does a company like Target know this?

The answer is pretty scary.

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It turns out that companies have the purchase history for you, me, and hundreds of thousands other customers. They can compute a so called pregnancy score, which is not just whether or not someone’s pregnant, but even what her due date is. They calculate this score not only by looking at obvious things, like the purchase of baby clothes for example. When you buy more vitamins than you usually do, or you buy a handbag that’s big enough to hold diapers, they’re on to you as well. The sum of all these seemingly trivial purchases among thousands of customers reveal a pattern of behavior that companies pick up.

You reveal more through your likes on Facebook than you know

Back to Facebook, your “likes” give away much more than you’d like to.

Details like your sexuality, relationship status, if your parents are divorced, if you’re a smoker, drinker, your religious and political views can be detected, according to new research conducted at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Jennifer Holbeck confirms: “In my lab, we’ve developed mechanisms where we can quite accurately predict things like your political preference, your personality score, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, intelligence, along with things like how much you trust the people you know and how strong those relationships are. We can do all of this really well.”

Keep in mind that Facebook has 1.2 billion users per month, meaning that half the Earth’s Internet population is using Facebook. This provides a wealth of behavioral and demographic data for hundreds of millions of people, which is unprecedented in history.

Liking curly fries means you’re highly intelligent

what facebook 'likes' expose

Before you might reconsider any obvious likes, it’s good to know that you’re also revealing yourself in more unexpected ways.

Golbeck gives the following jaw-dropping example, from a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies. “They looked at just people’s Facebook likes, and […] listed the five likes that were most indicative of high intelligence. And among those was liking a page for curly fries.”

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Before you start liking posts about fatty snacks, let’s dig deeper — how can your intelligence be predicted by liking a completely irrelevant page?

One of the theories put forward by Golbeck is a sociological one called homophily, which basically says people are friends with people like them. For example, if you’re young, you tend to be friends with other young people.

“So if I were to give you a hypothesis, it would be that a smart guy started this page, or maybe one of the first people who liked it would have scored high on that test. And they liked it, and their friends saw it, and by homophily, we know that he probably had smart friends, and so it spread to them, and some of them liked it, and they had smart friends, and so it spread to them, and so it propagated through the network to a host of smart people, so that by the end, the action of liking the curly fries page is indicative of high intelligence, not because of the content, but because the actual action of liking reflects back the common attributes of other people who have done it”, Golbeck explains.

How to control the information you share?

It’s a pretty uncomfortable truth that we’re giving away so much information about ourselves without even knowing it. How can we take back control and make sure our data isn’t being abused?

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Unfortunately there’s no simple answer to that question. Neither our governments, nor (social media) companies have the willpower or incentive to take action, Golbeck points out.

The most effective path to take, according to her, is that of science.

“It’s doing science that allowed us to develop all these mechanisms for computing this personal data in the first place. And it’s actually very similar research that we’d have to do if we want to develop mechanisms that can say to a user, ‘Here’s the risk of that action you just took. By liking that Facebook page, or by sharing this piece of personal information, you’ve now improved my ability to predict whether or not you’re using drugs or whether or not you get along well in the workplace.’ And that, I think, can affect whether or not people want to share something, keep it private, or just keep it offline altogether.

We can also look at things like allowing people to encrypt data that they upload, so it’s kind of invisible and worthless to sites like Facebook or third party services that access it, but that select users who the person who posted it want to see it have access to see it. This is all super exciting research from an intellectual perspective, and so scientists are going to be willing to do it”, according to Golbeck.

This kind of science would be a great step forward. Computer scientists, give us back the control we lost to social media companies along the way!

But we don’t have to wait for anyone’s action to become educated and empowered users. Reflect on the way you use social media and act more consciously. Think twice before you share or like something.

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Are you comfortable with the information about you that’s available online? Are you careful about what you share and like on Facebook or not? Any tips you want to share with other users?

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Written by Gosia Kurowska

Gosia Kurowska was born in Poland and has lived in Belgium before moving to Thailand recently. She has worked for the EU institutions as a speechwriter and press officer for several years. She now launched her own blog on handmade fashion and jewelry from Thailand/Asia, treasurista.com.

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