The dark side of the social media force

This article first appeared in DNA India on 16th Feb, 2017.

Ever taken those online tests on Facebook or Twitter that claim to assess your personality? You know the ones I mean. They seem like fun. “Find out who your true love is” or “Find out who you were in your last birth”, or tests of that sort. It seems harmless enough, doesn’t it? Of course, before you can take the test, the site administering said test wants access to your profile and content on the social media of your choice and usually folks see no harm in doing this. What could possibly be wrong in that, you ask.

An article appearing first in the magazine Das Magazin, talked about how a psychologist called Michal Kosinski had developed a method to analyse people’s personalities based on their Facebook activity. As part of his Ph.D, he decided to send questionnaires out to people based on the well known “Big Five” model for assessing human personality types that includes traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Kosinski found that by correlating the results from these tests to the Facebook activity and demographic profiles of people, he could predict human behavior surprisingly well.

For example, he showed that it was possible to predict skin color based on an average of about 68 likes with a 95% accuracy and sexual orientation with an 88% accuracy. Not just this, he was also able to show that it was possible to predict other aspects like intelligence, religious affiliation and substance abuse using his models. Facebook likes eventually became private by default after this, but the potential of what could be achieved had already been shown.

It was around this time the Brexit was making waves. It appears now that an analytics company based out of the UK utilised very similar models to profile nearly every individual in the population and show targeted messages to them, thereby, influencing the way the Brexit vote went. It also appears that this same company was also involved with the Trump election campaign and could well have been a reason for Trump’s winning electoral strategy.

While we have come to accept that Google will target ads at us based on what it’s algorithms glean from our mails, the fact that algorithms can profile us in incredibly intrusive ways ought to give us pause for thought. As organizations start using social media profiles to hire, it is time for us to think about the ethical and moral implications of such a practice. In conversations with employees, I find that while people are open to having prospective employees look at their LinkedIn profiles, they feel that other, more personal social media profiles ought to be off limits while deciding on the whether to hire a candidate or not.

Whichever way we feel about it, social media profiling and its use in all aspects of our lives is here to stay. It is up to individuals to decide how to safeguard their privacy. So next time, you click on an online personality test on social media, think again.

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