How politicians use your Facebook to get your vote – and how to stop them

This post is also available in Dutch.

After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, a British company claimed they used day-to-day user Facebook data to help him win. How can we avoid being influenced online?

Companies like Cambridge Analytica try to influence your vote using your Facebook likes.
Illustration by Jeroen van Baar (CC BY).

Nowadays, almost everybody is glued to their phones, whether it’s for practical reasons or simply out of boredom. We tend to open the Facebook app just to hit ‘like’ a few times while scrolling down our newsfeed. We don’t seem to realize that everything we do on the internet leaves a trace. A UK company called Cambridge Analytica claims that they used these digital traces, Facebook likes, to help Donald Trump win the United States Presidential election.

Predicting your personality based on your Facebook likes
Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, claimed that his company used information about people’s Facebook likes to predict people’s personality types. To make this possible, he used research from Swiss scientist, Michael Kosinski.

Kosinski is a so-called ‘psychometric’, a researcher interested in measuring psychological traits. In psychometrics, a model called the ‘Big Five’ is used to make a relatively accurate assessment of the kind of person you are. It measures 5 personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, also known as OCEAN. The scores for these traits are a prediction of how you might behave, what you need, and what you fear.

Before this past summer of 2016, gathering information for these measurements was done by filling in a highly personal questionnaire. This was done until Kosinski figured out how to use a person’s Facebook likes to predict his OCEAN scores.

This knowledge was then applied by Cambridge Analytica to help Trump win. For instance, the company would adapt Trump campaign messages and videos to the personality of Facebook users, to make them more effective than regular television ads.

How much of Nix’s story is true?
Critics call Nix’s claim to Trump’s victory a hype. According to these critics, the Trump campaign used psychometrics alongside many other tools, only using it to update the methodologies used traditionally for predicting voting behavior.

However, this doesn’t relieve skeptics of their fear of ‘big data’. As with any new technological innovation, not knowing how something works can make some people frightened of potentially harmful uses. That’s why we want to share a couple of tips with you, to help you avoid being influenced by politicians based on your online life.

How to avoid being influenced
With the Dutch elections coming up, you might be wondering how to avoid being influenced based on your digital traces. The first step is to become aware that this is happening. Good job! Here’s to succeeding at the first step by reading this article.

Secondly, you can avoid being traced when surfing the net. To do this, either find the Privacy mode of your browser or install an Ad Blocker to stop Facebook from knowing where you browse. Alternatively, you can choose to install the “Hack je Hokje” plugin for Google Chrome (download here; in Dutch) and browse the web with your own personal anonymous avatar.

Thirdly, to convince you that predicting your personality based on your Facebook likes is possible, check out www.applymagicsauce.com. After giving this site permission to access your Facebook likes it will return a predicted personality profile. Then you’ll be able to see for yourself how trustworthy the analysis of Cambridge Analytics really is. Good luck – and don’t forget to write in the comments below if the website’s personality prediction corresponds to your own knowledge of yourself.

This blog was written by Leandra Mulder and Jeroen van Baar.

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