The dangers of using that Facebook personality game

Image by Ludovic Bertron used under Creative Commons License
Image by Ludovic Bertron used under Creative Commons License

Tends to find fault with others o these questions look familiar?

  • Tends to find fault with others
  • Is relaxed, handles stress well
  • Is emotionally stable, not easily upset
  • Is easily distracted
  • etc

A large percentage of Facebook users have played with these “personality analysis” games at least once in their life (some do them regularly). Why not? It’s a fun way of finding out if a “test” will evaluate you the same way you evaluate yourself… right? WRONG!

These online games and questionnaires are known as the OCEAN test and rate you against 5 psychological traits:

  1. Openness
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extraversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism

What may seem like a fun way to spend a few minutes and then boast to your friends about the results may be a firm performing deep psychometric analysis of you. 

We believe companies like Cambridge Analytica have been using these Facebook games as a toolkit to build psychological profiles representing millions of users worldwide. 

The company claimed it had data on around 230 million adults in the USA and approximately 4000 “data points” on every one of them, including gym and club memberships, charity donations, and card transactions.

— First Post, https://goo.gl/SxG5dK

They collect this incredible treasure trove of data by creating enticing Facebook games and questionnaires. Usually they provide a quick peak at your OCEAN score summary but then using Facebook tools, they can associate that psychological snapshot with your Facebook profile and real name. This link to your online/offline self is what makes this practice controversial and the term used to describe it is onboarding.

Cambridge Analytica has said they have 3000-5000 data points for each of the 230 million psychological profiles they track. These data points may include age, income, debt, hobbies, criminality, purchase history, religious/secular beliefs,etc.

The pedigree

Cambridge Analytica is a spin-off of British firm SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories  https://goo.gl/iuh9gz) which is known tp have performed PsyOps (Psychological Operations) counter-terrorism in war torn countries like Afghanistan.

The Trump efffect

During the last hotly contested US election, the media repeated a fact over and over “that the trump campaign wasn’t using traditional media advertising”. The media was right. Instead of traditional macro targeting, Trump turned to Cambirge Analytica (first used by his adversary Cruz) to win voters or dissuade voters of his opposition.

When you bake a good cake it’s the sum of the ingredients … it’s actually flour, and eggs, and ginger, and everything else. And that’s what we’re looking at,[…]

— Alexander Nix, CEO Cambridge Analytica to NBC News – https://goo.gl/uqs0GA

The real problem lies with lax privacy laws implemented in the US. In Europe, most countries have strict data protection and privacy laws severely limiting the second or third hand use of personal data about their citizens. The US has no such protection for its population which means data brokers can access a treasure trove of (often) very private and personal data about its targets. This is how true, powerful and proven micro-targeting is implemented at its best.

Facebook is doing very well. They successfully moved to mobile and their increased profitability from advertising shows it. They are sticky now with 1.71 billion monthly active users. Stickiness doesn’t tell the true story. The question is how much was each user worth to Facebook? 

  • A global user generates $3.82 a user per year (up from $2.76 a year ago)
  • A USA user generates $14.34 a user per year (up from $9.30)

The power of Facebook advertising isn’t so much the reach but the micro-segmentation it makes available is. This micro-segmentation is possible because facebook knows who you are, where you live/work, who your friends are, what you like/dislike, how much you make and much more. I wrote an article entitled Facebook knows more about you than you realize

What are dark posts?

To continue the discussion, we need to talk about something called Dark Posts or Dark Ads. In simple term, they are posts using news feed style layouts visible in your feed but not actually posted in it. Confused yet? Because they aren’t traditional advertising posts cluttering up your newsfeed, you are less likely to “hide” the advertising which otherwise would look like spam. Imagine how powerful this becomes for companies performing A/B testing.  They could run multiple ads against the same person in one day without looking like SPAM.

Think of these as special newsfeed items seen only by the person being targeted, all the wile looking like “normal” posts (not jumping out as advertising) and being temporary. 

Let’s make the cake

So take the power of Cambridge Analytica and merge it with the hidden advertising of Facebook dark posts and this is (we believe) what allowed Trump’s digital marketing team to serve the right ad to the right voter at the right time. 

A good example is the divisive issue of gun ownership. A gun owner profiled to be anti-establishment could be shown ads about how the opposition wants to weaken the USA by taking guns away (the national anthem playing in the back with a flag waving in the wind). A gun owner with strong religious family values could be shown a pleasant message about how father and son could bond over hunting, alone in the wilderness [but that the opposition would make guns illegal and take this beautiful bonding opportunity away].

Dark ads with good psychological profiles can also be used to create apathy and encourage some opponent voters not to turn out therefore reducing the power of the opponent. Trump created anti Hillary ads pushing out negative messages (Hillary claimed to carry hot sauce with her (link))

Conclusion

What may seem as a simple and fun way to spend 5 minutes could allow a company, well funded group or government to psychologically manipulate you without you ever becoming consciously aware. 

I hope that by sharing this blog article, you will be a little more careful and a lot more distrustful about what you see on Facebook.

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