What Are Your Facebook Likes Revealing About You? (Hint: It’s a lot)

Is it possible that you are unwittingly outing yourself – as gay, as a conservative, as Muslim, or as a pot smoker – by simply liking stuff on Facebook? Sure, you could easily do this by l...
What Are Your Facebook Likes Revealing About You? (Hint: It’s a lot)
Written by Josh Wolford
  • Is it possible that you are unwittingly outing yourself – as gay, as a conservative, as Muslim, or as a pot smoker – by simply liking stuff on Facebook?

    Sure, you could easily do this by liking the “Gay Men’s Alliance for Rolling Joints #420” page (I don’t think this really exists, just an example). But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about people being able to accurately predict your lifestyle choices and personality traits by simply analyzing the combination of things you like on Facebook.

    And by doing that, bring to light things that you may have purposefully tried to keep hidden.

    Have you ever had a problem or been put in an awkward situation because of something you liked on Facebook? Let us know in the comments.

    You may not think that liking a page like “that’s going in my status when I get home” would allow people to infer that you’re a teetotaler, or that liking the Weight Watchers page tips off that you’re in a relationship, but new research suggests that your likes (even the ones you may find innocuous) are much more telling than you may think.

    Baby, you like that?

    The study comes to us from the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge and was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal (PNAS). Researchers looked at over 58,000 Facebook users and found that they were able to accurately predict “a range of highly sensitive personal attributes,” including things like ethnicity, religious affiliations, sexual orientation, intelligence, drug use, political views, and more, by simply analyzing the subject’s likes on the site.

    For instance, using Facebook likes, the researchers were able to correctly categorize white vs. black 95% of the time and male vs. female 93% of the time. They were correct in their predictions about a users’ sexual orientation over 80% of the time, and could distinguish between Christianity vs. Islam in 82% of the circumstances.

    And as you may expect, the researchers were more accurate with their predictions when they had more likes to work with.

    “[E]ven knowing a single random Like for a given user can result in nonnegligible prediction accuracy. Knowing further likes increases the accuracy but with diminishing returns from each additional piece of information.”

    So simply knowing one thing that you like on Facebook could help someone determine a fact about you, like your age, gender, or sexual orientation. And the more likes that are available, the more likely someone is going to be able to predict many of your attributes (up to a certain point).

    Succinctly put, “individual traits and attributes can be predicted to a high degree of accuracy based on records of users’ likes.”

    What’s interesting is how the researchers made their inferences. “Few users were associated with Likes explicitly revealing their attributes,” according to the study. That means that the likes that tipped off the analysts weren’t blatant declarations of personality and lifestyle traits. For example, less the 5% of users that the analysts predicted to be gay liked specifically gay groups like “Being Gay” or “I love being gay.” The analyst’s predictions were based on much more subtle indicators such as liking pages for “Britney Spears” or “Desperate Housewives.”

    In other words, your likes betray you, good ladies and sirs.

    The researchers outline their nightmare scenario as such:

    On the other hand, the predictability of individual attributes from digital records of behavior may have considerable negative implications, because it can easily be applied to large numbers of people without obtaining their individual consent and without them noticing. Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even one’s Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation, or political views that an individual may not have intended to share.

    One can imagine situations in which such predictions, even if incorrect, could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life. Importantly, given the ever-increasing amount of digital traces people leave behind, it becomes difficult for individuals to control which of their attributes are being revealed. For example, merely avoiding explicitly homosexual content may be insufficient to prevent others from discovering one’s sexual orientation

    Of course, it’s important to note that this is in no way exclusive to Facebook likes.

    “Similarity between Facebook Likes and other widespread kinds of digital records, such as browsing histories, search queries, or purchase histories suggests that the potential to reveal users’ attributes is unlikely to be limited to likes,” they say.

    But likes are unique in that, most of the time, the information in much more available to the public than a browsing history, for example. Facebook has over a billion monthly active users, and a good number of them like hundreds and even thousands of individual items of content on the site. It’s interesting (and probably unnerving to many people) that analysts were able to determine many personality traits with such accuracy simply by combing through a users’ liking habits.

    An outing on Facebook

    Likes aren’t the only kind of Facebook action that can “out” someone, exposing information that they wanted to keep private to the wrong people.

    Last October, we talked about a privacy flaw inside Facebook’s Groups that led to two gay college students being outed to their families.

    As the story goes, the two University of Texas students were added to a Facebook group called “Queer Chorus” by the group’s creator. As you’re probably aware, Facebook allows friends to add other friends to groups that they create.

    When the two students were added, Facebook generated a story about the event, which was published on their parents’ news feeds. Although both students had customized privacy settings that disallowed their parents from seeing certain posts, this story that they had been added to the “Queer Chorus” group somehow made it to their parents eyes.


    Simple. There are three types of groups that users can create on Facebook: Open, Closed, and Secret. And Facebook allows for friends to see that you’ve been added to Open and Closed groups.

    “Similar to being tagged in a photo, you can only be added to a group by one of your friends. When a friend adds you to a group, a story in the group (and in news feed for Open or Closed groups) will indicate that your friend has added you to a group,” says Facebook.

    “When a friend adds you to a group, you’ll get a notification right away, [and] you can leave a group anytime. To do so, just go to the group page and click “Leave Group” in the right-hand column. Once you leave a group, you can’t be added by anyone else unless you explicitly request to be re-added.”

    So, you can leave the group if you want. But there’s nothing to stop people from seeing that you were added to it (assuming it’s an open or closed group).

    There’s also a bit of misinformation when it comes to the notifications users receive when they’re added to a group. The notifications can make it seem like the user was only invited, when in fact they can appear in friends’ news feeds as having been “added.”

    Sounds a bit anecdotal, I know. But it’s just another example of how non-direct, contextual info derived from Facebook actions can be used to infer certain things about a user – often at a heavy price to that user.

    Likes, and privacy by obscurity

    As you probably know (although there’s a chance you haven’t received it yet), Facebook unveiled their new Graph Search product in January. With Graph Search Facebook is looking to index all of the data on their massive graph and make it easily searchable and cross-reference-able.

    With the unveiling of any new product, especially one involving search, Facebook is going to come under fire from those concerned with privacy. Facebook has made a point to reassure users that Graph Search will in no way affect their privacy. And in a way, Facebook is being completely genuine here. Basically, if a random person could find the info before Graph Search, they’ll be able to find it with Graph Search. If they couldn’t find it before, Graph Search won’t just suddenly throw it out in the open.

    Facebook is not changing any of the privacy details on any of your posts, photos, or likes. You can trust them on that.

    But there is something to the privacy concerns revolving around Graph Search. First, Facebook removed the ability for users to opt out of being featured in search results. This happened back in December, well before Facebook announced Graph Search.

    “Everyone used to have a setting called ‘Who can look up my timeline by name,’ which controlled if someone could be found when other people typed their name into the Facebook search bar. The setting was very limited in scope, and didn’t prevent people from finding others in many other ways across the site,” said Facebook at the time.

    Because of this “limited scope,” Facebook retired the setting. Now, everyone can be found with Facebook search. And since Graph Search is powered by “likes,” that means that Graph Search has made it easier for people to find information about you and your likes.

    Here’s how I explained the concept of privacy by obscurity then:

    It’s not that any of your information is any more public than it already was. Once again, Facebook isn’t lying about that. You’ll probably be found more often simply because Graph Search is a better search tool that makes it easier to find stuff.

    Previously, Facebook users could rest on the principle of security through obscurity (or privacy by obscurity, for our purposes). That line of thinking goes something like this:

    “Sure, I have some public information out there. But unless someone is specifically looking for it or for me, it’s kind of hard to find.”

    And that line of thinking is true, for most circumstances. If I wanted to find you, I would have to be actively looking for you. There was no real, reliable way to simply stumble upon your Facebook profile (with consistency), and definitely no way to find you based on your likes, photos, and interests.

    Now there is, of course. If I search “people from Hoboken that like Bon Jovi,” your name may pop up. I don’t know you, and I never would have organically searched for you. But Graph Search has led me to you, and your adorable puppy photos, and information on your penchant for fine wines and spirits. I basically know you now.

    So, what can you do about it? Luckily for you, Facebook provides a way to prevent other users from determining things about you based on your likes. All you have to do edit the visibility of your likes. Just go to your settings, access you likes, and you’ll find that each like group has an option to make itself private. This process can be tedious, but if you want to stop people from knowing everything that you like and making inferences from it, this is pretty much the only way. Other than quitting Facebook.

    Final Thoughts

    Of course, the big issue of the study is that this information was inferred from likes, not just any information available on Facebook. Even if you choose to leave the “religion” or “interested in” sections of your About page blank, there’s a chance that those things could be discovered simply by looking at public info on your likes.

    If you’re concerned about your likes giving you away, one simple but somewhat tedious solution involves changing the visibility of your likes – something that more people may be thinking about anyway thanks to Facebook’s new Graph Search. Another solution could be to simply be more careful with what you like. If you don’t want people to know/think that you’re a strict Christian, maybe you should stay away from liking pages that you think would tip it off.

    But the bottom line is that likes are one of the vertebrae in the backbone of Facebook. Likes make the world go round. And it’s nearly impossible to have a real Facebook experience without liking things. You can fine tune your privacy all you want (and that’s strongly suggested), but in the end, this is Facebook’s bread and butter. Being surprised that Facebook likes could possibly be telling of your personality is like being surprised that someone could infer your team allegiance from your Green Bay Packers jersey and that giant block of cheese on your head.

    Do you think about how people judge you based on what you like on Facebook? If so, do you care? Are you concerned about people discovering things through likes that you may have thought was hidden? Let us know in the comments.

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