Online ad campaigns created by academics in Britain and the US have targeted millions of people based on psychological traits perceived from a single “like” on Facebook – demonstrating, they say, the effect of “mass psychological persuasion”.
More than 3.5 million people, mostly women in the UK aged 18-40, were shown online adverts tailored to their personality type after researchers found that specific #Facebook likes reflected different psychological characteristics.
The bespoke campaigns boosted clicks on ads for beauty products and gaming apps by up to 40% and sales by as much as 50% compared with untargeted adverts, according to the researchers, who did not benefit financially from the campaigns.
The work, carried out for unnamed companies, was designed to reveal how even the smallest expressions of preference online can be used to influence people’s behaviour.
“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,” said Sandra Matz, a computational social scientist at Columbia Business School in New York City.
“We used one single Facebook like per person to decide whether they were introverted or extroverted, and that was the minimum amount of information we can possibly use to make inferences about people’s personalities. And yet we still see these effects on how often people click on ads and how often people buy something,” she added.
The work has raised concerns among some in academia. Gillian Bolsover, who studies online manipulation of political opinion at the Oxford Internet Institute, said she was concerned about whose hands publicity of the research might play into.
“Does coverage of the work primarily serve as an advert to the companies that might do these things? Or does it serve to inform the public about something going on in our society that we might not be happy with and want do something about?” she said.
“If people are worried about the way technology is going, there are lots of little actions they can take to reduce the amount of data that is collected about them and to avoid supporting the practices and companies that they might feel are detrimental to society.”