Collecting data on millions of Facebook users to analyse their psychological traits

The Guardian has revealed how British academics have collected information about millions of Facebook users and used the data to score them on openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The academics were paid by funders of the campaign of US presidential candidate Ted «Carpet Bomb» Cruz.

The fact that information from public Facebook profiles can be used to create psychological profiles is intriguing but not really new. Researchers have claimed they can assess someone’s personality reasonably well by analysing what they like on Facebook or by analysing personal information, activities and preferences, language features and internal Facebook statistics.

What was new to me (but apparently not to everyone) is how the academics connected to the Cruz campaign went about collecting people’s Facebook data. They used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to recruit people to fill out a questionnaire that would give the researchers access to that person’s Facebook profile. Not only would they download data about the participants themselves, but also about their Facebook friends - even though those friends were unaware of this and hadn’t given permission. Participants were paid about $1 each for access to their Facebook network.

According to the Guardian, Facebook users had on average 340 friends in 2014. Of course, there’s considerable overlap between people’s networks so it can be assumed that the average participant would yield far less than 340 new profiles. Even so, this would seem to be a pretty efficient - if sneaky - way to collect data on Facebook users.

The Guardian doesn’t discuss whether this method would still work today, but I doubt it would. Out of concern for the privacy of its users (sure!) Facebook has cut off access to users’ friends’ data when it updated it’s API earlier this year.

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