News What your facebook likes say about you

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What your Facebook ‘likes’ say about you

If you guard your privacy fiercely, you may want to think twice about ‘liking’ the next photo your friend posts on Facebook of a cute, fluffy kitten; or sharing the video that showed up in your news feed of the latest and quite possibly greatest Harlem Shake. Because the actions we take on Facebook reveal more about us and our underlying personality than we perhaps first thought.

That is, according to researchers at Cambridge University, who have used algorithms to predict religion, politics, race and sexual orientation – all from what you like or dislike on the social network.

The study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) looked at 58,000 Facebook users who, alongside their ‘likes’ and demographic information also completed psychometric testing designed to get to the bottom of their personality traits.

The volunteers’ Facebook likes were fed into algorithms, and matched the information from the personality tests. Indeed, the algorithms proved 88% accurate for determining male sexuality, 95% accurate in distinguishing African-American from Caucasian-American and 85% for differentiating Republican from Democrat. Christians and Muslims were correctly classified in 82% of cases and relationship status and substance abuse was predicted with an accuracy between 65% and 73%.

The study collated vast amounts of information, including music and TV shows liked by the volunteers. Indeed, the research revealed some unusual relationships. “Curly fries correlated with high intelligence and people who liked the Dark Knight tended to have fewer Facebook friends,” said research author David Stillwell.

“Few users clicked ‘likes’ explicitly revealing these attributes. For example, fewer than five per cent of gay users clicked obvious ‘likes’ such as gay marriage. The predictions relied on inference – aggregating huge amounts of less informative but more popular ‘likes’ such as music and TV shows to produce incisive personal profiles,” he added.

“Even seemingly opaque personal details such as whether users’ parents separated before the user reached the age of 21 were accurate to 60 per cent, enough to make the information worthwhile for advertisers.”

Whilst the research has ramifications for brands looking to better target their marketing, the researchers main concern is that our digital profiles are further eroding our privacy.

“I appreciate automated book recommendations, or Facebook selecting the most relevant stories for my newsfeed. However, I can imagine situations in which the same data and technology is used to predict political views or sexual orientation, posing threats to freedom or even life,” said lead researcher, Michael Kosinski.

So what can we do protect our privacy, and our personalities, from being exposed online?

“Facebook likes are public by default but it is not that Facebook is forcing you to make them public; you have a choice to change your privacy settings,” Mr Stillwell says.

Mr Stillwell also reinforced the message that the results of the study had implications beyond social media to all digital records – from browser histories to search queries.

“This research should ring alarm bells for anyone who thinks that privacy settings are the solution to protecting information online. We need to fundamentally re-think how much data we are voluntarily sharing,” Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch told the BBC.

“Sharing individual likes or pages might not seem hugely intrusive, but it allows individuals to be categorised and behaviour predicted in areas that are far more personal and sensitive than people realise.

“Yet again, it is clear the lack of transparency about how users’ data is being used will lead to entirely justified fears about our data being exploited for commercial gain.”

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About the Author

Lizzy has more than ten years’ experience in the print and digital publishing arena and is the Editor at Single File. Having moved from the UK to Australia in 2008, Lizzy has worked for a number of leading publishers in Sydney and has particular expertise in the health, wellness and travel markets. If you have any questions for Lizzy, you can send them across by email to

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