Thomas Abraham

Politics in the age of Facebook

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Our likes, dislikes and opinions on social media leave us vulnerable to psychological warfare

There has been a lot of talk around the globe over the use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica (CA), a company partly owned by the U.S. billionaire hedge fund owner and Donald Trump backer, Robert Mercer.

In India, the discussion has descended into a farcical wrangle between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress on who used the company’s services. For good measure, Union Law and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad even warned Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg of “stringent action” including summoning him to India if it was found to be involved in the theft of data from Indians.

All of this misses the real point. Data theft is not the issue. There is no need to steal the cornucopia of data that Facebook has accumulated on each one of us who uses the platform. It can be, and is, legally bought and used by marketers, businesses, researchers and anyone else who pays the social media giant for it.

Contours of a profile

Facebook (or Google for that matter) has information on where we live, our age, our gender, what our likes and dislikes are, who our online friends are, where we like to go out to eat, and where and when we travel. Facebook charges advertisers to target audiences using this knowledge, and the money from this is what has made Mr. Zuckerberg one of the wealthiest people on earth.

What is new and potentially worrying is the spotlight CA has thrown on how this information can be used to create psychological profiles of Facebook users (or psychographic targeting as it has been described) and direct political messages to people in ways that could move and manipulate our deepest emotions and impulses. Two experimental studies show that this kind of psychological targeting can influence not just emotions but also behaviour.

CA’s work for the Trump presidential campaign was based on two studies by Michal Kosinski, an assistant professor at Stanford University, U.S. Mr. Kosinski was approached by CA but declined to work for them. However, a Cambridge University researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, agreed to work for CA to build psychological profiles of Facebook users.

Mr. Kosinski, as a PhD student at Cambridge, had devised a model to analyse the pages a person “liked” on Facebook and build a psychological profile of the person based on five characteristics including introversion, extroversion, neuroticism, openness and agreeableness. The model was based on the results of three experiments involving more than 3.7 million Facebook users. He and his colleagues first posted a personality quiz on Facebook and then tallied the results of the personality test with the pages that the test takers “liked”, which was then used to build a model to create psychological profiles of users based on the pages they “liked”.

His team then created advertisements with messages targeted to a user’s psychological profile. For example, someone who was judged to be an extrovert would see a different version of an advertisement on Facebook than someone who was judged to be an introvert. They found that psychologically-targeted advertisements were more effective than non-targeted advertisements in persuading people to take some kind of action such as downloading an app or clicking on the advertisement than non-targeted advertisements.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, in 2017, Mr. Kosinski and his colleagues wrote that this kind of psychological targeting could “make it possible to influence the behaviours of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of target audiences”.

The holy grail of marketing and advertising lies in persuading people to take action, such as buying a product. The link between message and action has always been hard to determine. But Mr. Kosinski’s research appeared to provide a way to use a person’s digital footprint (in this case, a liked page on Facebook) to construct a psychological profile and create messages that seemed to change behaviour. “Tailoring persuasive appeals to psychological profiles of large groups of people allowed us to influence their actual behaviours and choices,” he wrote.

If Mr. Kosinski’s research is accurate, all it takes to have a rough idea of a person’s personality is a single Facebook page ‘like’. For example, those who liked the singer Lady Gaga were on average likely to score more highly on the personality trait of openness and adjudged to be more intellectually curious and imaginative. So anyone hoping to use Facebook to target users with messages could get a list of users who liked Lady Gaga, and target them with messages that addressed their curiosity and imagination. Until recently, data on Facebook page ‘likes’ were publicly accessible. Now, they are no longer publicly accessible. But there are ways around this. Anyone who wants a list of Facebook users who like Lady Gaga need only take out an advertisement with a link asking Lady Gaga’s admirers to name their 10 favourite songs by the singer. Anyone who clicks the link is giving access to their Facebook profile and becomes a target for further advertising.

In politics

What are the political implications of this kind of psychological profile-based targeting? CA and its erstwhile head Alexander Nix worked for the Trump campaign as well as the one for his rival, Ted Cruz, also of the Republican Party. A presentation made by CA on its work in the Trump campaign that was leaked to The Guardian and Observer newspapers states that the firm “ingested data and audience profiles” and “devised communications to best promote a story to these individuals”.

Voters were clearly getting targeted messages, but did this actually help change their voting intentions? This is not something that can be measured as there is no data linking people who saw a particular advertisement and the way they voted. CA worked on the Cruz campaign, but he lost. The firm began to work on the Trump campaign after he won the Republican nomination. There is no way of knowing the impact it had.

Mr. Kosinski himself has expressed concern at the ways this kind of behaviour change communication could be put to use in political campaigns and written that “it could be used to covertly exploit weaknesses in their character and persuade them to take action against their own best interest”.

The question then is not about which political parties in India did or did not use the services of CA. Or whether data were illegally acquired from Facebook users. The real issue is that we spill out our every like and dislike and opinion on every subject on platforms such as Facebook. The clues to our personalities revealed by our social media behaviour leave us vulnerable to psychological warfare from those who wish to influence our behaviour.

Winning elections have always been about moving people at an emotional level. As every demagogue knows, if you can manipulate, rouse and orchestrate people’s emotions, you are halfway towards achieving political power. Social media has provided a new tool to achieve that.

Courtesy The Hindu


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