A new study takes the saying “what you like says a lot about you” to a whole new level. Researchers from Cambridge University analyzed 58,000 Facebook profiles and found that a person’s Facebook Likes, which are public by default, are highly accurate in predicting personal, sometimes sensitive details about him or her.
Simply analyzing a person’s Facebook Likes was 88% accurate in predicting whether a man is gay or straight, 95% accurate in predicting whether a person is Caucasian or African American, and 85% accurate in determining whether someone is a Democrat or a Republican.
The researchers concluded that Facebook Likes, these “relatively basic digital records of human behavior,” “can be used to automatically and accurately estimate a wide range of personal attributes that people would typically assume to be private.”
Most Likes that serve as predictors of other attributes, including whether a person is in a relationship or a substance abuser, aren’t obvious–it’s not as if single people Like pages called “I like being single” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Instead, Likes that have seemingly no connection to certain personality traits are surprisingly linked. The researchers gave a few good examples:
The best predictors of high intelligence include “Thunderstorms,” “The Colbert Report,” “Science,” and “Curly Fries,” whereas low intelligence was indicated by “Sephora,” “I Love Being A Mom,” “Harley Davidson,” and “Lady Antebellum.” Good predictors of male homosexuality included “No H8 Campaign,” “Mac Cosmetics,” and “Wicked The Musical,” whereas strong predictors of male heterosexuality included “Wu-Tang Clan,” “Shaq,” and “Being Confused After Waking Up From Naps.”
7.4 million websites have Facebook Like buttons on them (not to mention the buttons all over Facebook itself), and that number is growing. Users can Like almost anything: photos, comments, musicians, brands, celebrities, and pages. As we’ve written about extensively, social buttons like Facebook’s Like button aren’t just for sharing: they’re trackers. Unless you’re using a tool like DoNotTrackMe to block them, they know which sites you visit and what you do on a website, even if you never click them. The mere fact that they’re present on a page means they’re tracking you.
This study illustrates how the little things you do online add up to create a highly detailed picture of who you are. You may not think that a Like here and there says anything about you, but they all add up–especially with Facebook’s new Graph Search that displays all your Likes with a single search…and those searches can be incriminating, embarrassing, or even dangerous (“Men in Iran who are interested in other men,” for example). Plus the long list of people with whom Facebook shares data includes advertisers, app developers, law enforcement, and other companies.
Even if you’re trying to be discreet by leaving personal information out of your profile, others can figure it out through your public Likes. If researchers with a limited budget can learn this much about a person through their Facebook Likes, imagine how big companies, advertisers, or governments could use–or misuse–that data. Are you the type of person who takes risks? Maybe an insurance company will hike up your rates. Are you politically conservative? Maybe a potential employer will pass on hiring you because of it. Are you someone who loves coffee? Maybe online retailers will charge you more for it than someone else (Google filed a patent for price discrimination based on online social data).
The only solution Facebook offers is using your Facebook Activity Log to un-like things one by one, but for many users with hundreds or thousands of Likes, this process will take hours. Be wary of third-party apps that say they’ll let you delete all your Likes at once; search for reviews to learn more about whether they’re legitimate. We advise you to rethink every Like you click, knowing that all of them can come back to bite you.