Facebook Fallout

I asked a security expert to reveal how Cambridge Analytica might target me based on my personality

Kai Ryssdal Mar 26, 2018
Facebook Fallout

I asked a security expert to reveal how Cambridge Analytica might target me based on my personality

Kai Ryssdal Mar 26, 2018

OK, so I took a version of the personality test that Cambridge Analytica used to gather data on Facebook users. But I’m not going to tell you all of my answers because I’m an introvert …

Cambridge Analytica — a data analytics firm that worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — dominated headlines following revelations about how the company harvested personal information from 50 million Facebook users and used the information to target voters. The company partnered with an outside researcher who built a personality quiz app called “thisismydigitallife,” which 270,000 Facebook users were paid to install on their profiles. The researchers working with Cambridge Analytica gained access to those thousands of profiles, but also to a network of those users’ friends.

The personality quiz those 270,000 users took was based on a popular test used for modeling what’s called the “Big 5” personality traits, sometimes called the five-factor model. The traits include “extroversion,” “emotional stability,” “agreeableness,” “conscientiousness,” and “intellect/imagination.”

In an effort to understand what a personality test has got to do with targeting voters, Stephen Cobb — a researcher with the cybersecurity company ESET — joined me to analyze my results.

The Big 5

The version I took wanted to know things like whether I was “the life of the party” or if “I leave my belongings around” (I think that might’ve been a fancy way of asking if I’m messy).

There were 50 items, with each asking me to rate how true they were on a five-point scale. 1 = “disagree,” 3 = “neutral,” and 5 = “agree.”

My results:

The developers of the test say people who score high on extraversion tend to be outgoing and social, while people who score low in this category — like me — tend to be a bit more introverted, or reserved. (Yep, this happens to be true.)

I managed to get in the 94th percentile for the “emotional stability” category — which should be good, right?

“That’s the neuroticism score,” Cobb told me. “No value judgment here.”

I’d like to think I’m pretty calm and relaxed, but, uh, I guess this test says otherwise. Cobb told me that people with high scores in this category tend to worry more.

Meanwhile, I scored on the low end for “agreeableness.” According to the developers of the test, “a person high in agreeableness is friendly and optimistic. Low scorers are critical and aggressive.” Cobb offered a more forgiving term: “competitive.” I’ll take it.

Cobb said that my high “conscientiousness” score has been shown to align with certain career fields such as law enforcement, cyber security, and military. As someone who spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, I think that fits.

I also scored low on “Intellect/Imagination” — sometimes called “openness to experience” — which means I’m less likely to be artistic.

How a firm like Cambridge Analytica could use these results to influence me

By fitting me in these boxes, data firms can learn how to communicate more effectively with me. Or, in other words, target me with the right ads.

Those firms don’t just stop with this personality test — they’ll take whatever other publicly available data they can mine from me to build a detailed profile.

So, for example … how does the information influence your voting preference?

“I might be looking to discourage you from going to the polls,” Cobb told me. “So to discourage you from going to the polls, I might want to muddy the waters around whoever your candidate is. Then the message that I would use to do that would be shaped by what I know about your personality.”

Knowing that I’m a military, rules-based person, I might be targeted with an ad or Facebook post that mentions how my candidate “broke the rules,” Cobb said.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix demonstrated this in a 2016 presentation. “If you know the personality of the people you are targeting, you can nuance your messaging to resonate more effectively with those key audience groups,” Nix said. “For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience, you’re going to need a message that is rational, and fear-based, or emotionally based.” He showed an image of a hand breaking into a window, above a statement that read: “The Second Amendment isn’t just a right. It’s an insurance policy. DEFEND THE RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS.”

But what about for people that didn’t take the test? Remember, Cambridge Analytica didn’t just have the personality test results from those 270,000 — they also had data on their Facebook likes. It’s possible to draw patterns on how people would score on the test using the pages they liked on Facebook.

Let’s simplify this a bit. Say I liked the U.S. Navy Facebook page, and a whole bunch of other people who had scored high in “conscientiousness” also liked that page. You might then be able to draw the conclusion that someone who likes the U.S. Navy page is also a conscientious person.

“You can run correlations up one side and down the other, and therefore you get the data from a whole bunch of other people who haven’t taken the test,” Cobb said. “You can imply things about them.”

In fact, there’s data from researchers at the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge that shows how some of your Facebook likes might be able to predict your personality traits from the Big 5, along with other characteristics.

If you like the pages for Michael Jordan, beer pong and Chris Tucker, chances are you’ll score high on the extraversion scale. Minecraft, anime and Voltaire fans: You’re probably an introvert. (For the record, I don’t like any of these pages. In case you were wondering.)

People who like soccer and business administration might score higher on the calm and relaxed spectrum. Here’s one thing I have in common with people who like the pages for Sun Tzu, Prada and Timmy from South Park: We’re all likely to be on the competitive scale.

In a 2016 presentation, Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix said, “By having hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans undertake this survey, we are able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.”

So what next?

There are some basic precautions you can start taking on social media, Cobb said, like checking your privacy settings and actively thinking about the data that you’re putting out there.

But the truth is, no matter what measures you take next, your data’s probably out there, in some way, some form.

According to Cobb, “I certainly think that the decision to join Facebook today is a different decision from what it was just a few months ago.”  

You can find your own scores to this test here, and to hear me take the test in real time, click the audio player above.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.