One Facebook ‘like’ is all it takes for targeted adverts

Researchers in the UK and US have showed how “mass psychological persuasion” can be used to target people on Facebook with advertisements, using nothing more than a single ‘like’.

One Facebook ‘like’ is all it takes for targeted adverts

More than 3.5 million people aged between 18-40 were gauged to be either introverted or extroverted, based only on a single ‘like’ per person.

Once an individual’s psychological characteristics had been discerned, they were shown tailored advertisements that reflected these personality types. These targeted campaigns boosted clicks for beauty products and apps by up to 40%, and sales for up to 50% compared with untargeted ads.

The study, published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, aims to show how even a miniscule interaction online could be used to influence thought and action. The work was carried out for unnamed companies, although the researchers did not benefit financially from the ad campaigns.

“The capacity to implement psychological mass persuasion in the real world carries both opportunities and ethical challenges,” the paper reads. “On the one hand, psychological persuasion could be used to help individuals make better decisions and alleviate many of today’s societal ills.

“On the other hand, psychological persuasion might be used to exploit ‘weaknesses’ in a person’s character. It could, for instance, be applied to target online casino advertisements at individuals who have psychological traits associated with pathological gambling.”

The researchers also mention reports that campaigns in the 2016 US presidential election used psychological profiles of millions of US citizens to suppress their votes and keep them away from the ballots on election day. “The veracity of this news story is uncertain,” they add, noting that it does illustrate how “psychological mass persuasion” could be abused on a wider scale than selling beauty products.

“We wanted to provide some scientific evidence that psychological targeting works, to show policymakers that it works, to show people on the street that it works, and say this is what we can do simply by looking at your Facebook likes. This is the way we can influence behaviour,” Sandra Matz, one of the study’s authors and a computational social scientist at Columbia Business School in New York, told the Guardian.

While there has been criticism about whose hands the research plays into, it does show just how little information a user needs to give about themselves – and how seemingly innocuous that data needs to be – for it to be leveraged on a large scale.

In October Alphr spoke to the inventor of the Facebook ‘like’ button – Justin Rosenstein – who spoke about the initial impetus behind the mechanism and noted that tech companies have a “huge responsibility” to think about the kinds of behaviours they are generating in the world.

“Humans are very malleable,” said Rosenstein. “It’s like architecture. Architects will understand that [one] structure will cause people to flow while certain architectures will cause people to feel isolated. Others will cause people to come together. When you’re architecting software, you’re creating similar dynamics where you can result in people exhibiting different kinds of behaviours in their lives unconsciously.”

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