Facebook is killing democracy with its personality profiling data

Why you should use Facebook with a healthy dose of skepticism.

What state should you move to based on your personality? What character on “Downton Abbey” would you be? What breed of dog is best for you? Some enormous percentage of Facebook’s 2.13 billion users must have seen Facebook friends sharing results of various online quizzes. They are sometimes annoying, senseless and a total waste of time. But they are irresistible. Besides, you’re only sharing the results with your family and friends. There’s nothing more innocent, right?


Wrong.

Facebook is in the business of exploiting your data. The company is worth billions of dollars because it harvests your data and sells it to advertisers. Users are encouraged to like, share and comment their lives away in the name of staying connected to family and friends. However, as an ethical hacker, security researcher and data analyst, I know that there is a lot more to the story. The bedrock of modern democracy is at stake.

You are being psychographically profiled

Most people have heard of demographics – the term used by advertisers to slice up a market by age, gender, ethnicity and other variables to help them understand customers. In contrast, psychographics measure people’s personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests and lifestyles. They help advertisers understand the way you act and who you are.

Historically, psychographic data were much harder to collect and act on than demographics. Today, Facebook is the world’s largest treasure trove of this data. Every day billions of people give the company huge amounts of information about their lives and dreams.

This isn’t a problem when the data are used ethically – like when a company shows you an ad for a pair of sunglasses you recently searched for.

However, it matters a lot when the data are used maliciously – segmenting society into disconnected echo chambers, and custom-crafting misleading messages to manipulate individuals’ opinions and actions.

That’s exactly what Facebook allowed to happen.

Quizzes, reading your mind and predicting your politics

Recent reports have revealed how Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based company owned by an enigmatic billionaire and led at the time by candidate Donald Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon, used psychographic data from Facebook to profile American voters in the months before the 2016 presidential election. Why? To target them with personalized political messages and influence their voting behavior.

A whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, described in detail how the company exploited Facebook users by harvesting their data and building models to “target their inner demons.”

How did Facebook let this happen?

The company does more than just sell your data. Since the early 2000s, Facebook has provided access to academic researchers seeking to study you. Many psychologists and social scientists have made their careers analyzing ways to predict your personality and ideologies by asking simple questions. These questions, like the ones used in social media quizzes, do not appear to have obvious connections to politics. Even a decision like which web browser you are using to read this article is filled with clues about your personality.

In 2015, Facebook gave permission to academic researcher Aleksandr Kogan to develop a quiz of his own. Like other quizzes, his was able to capture all of your public information, including name, profile picture, age, gender and birthday; everything you’ve ever posted on your timeline; your entire friends list; all of your photos and the photos you’re tagged in; education history; hometown and current city; everything you’ve ever liked; and information about the device you’re using including your web browser and preferred language.

Kogan shared the data he collected with Cambridge Analytica, which was against Facebook policy – but apparently the company rarely enforced its rules.

Going shopping for impressionable users

Analyzing these data, Cambridge Analytica determined topics that would intrigue users, what kind of political messaging users were susceptible to, how to frame the messages, the content and tone that would motivate users, and how to get them to share it with others. It compiled a shopping list of traits that could be predicted about voters.

Then the company was able to create websites, ads and blogs that would attract Facebook users and encourage them to spread the word. In Wylie’s words: “they see it … they click it … they go down the rabbit hole.”

This is how American voters were targeted with fake news, misleading information and contradictory messages intended to influence how they voted – or if they voted at all.

This is how Facebook users’ relationships with family and friends are being exploited for monetary profit, and for political gain.

Knowingly putting users at risk

Facebook could have done more to protect users.

The company encouraged developers to build apps for its platform. In return, the apps had access to vast amounts of user data – supposedly subject to those rules that were rarely enforced. But Facebook collected 30 percent of payments made through the apps, so its business interest made it want more apps, doing more things.

People who didn’t fill out quizzes were vulnerable, too. Facebook allowed companies like Cambridge Analytica to collect personal data of friends of quiz takers, without their knowledge or consent. Tens of millions of people’s data were harvested – and many more Facebook users could have been affected by other apps.

Changing culture and politics

In a video interview with the Observer, Wylie explained that “Politics flows from culture … you have to change the people in order to change culture.”

That’s exactly what Facebook enabled Cambridge Analytica to do. In 2017, the company’s CEO boasted publicly that it was “able to use data to identify … very large quantities of persuadable voters … that could be influenced to vote for the Trump campaign.”

To exert that influence, Cambridge Analytica – which claims to have 5,000 data points on every Americanused people’s data to psychologically nudge them to alter their behaviors in predictable ways.

This included what became known as “fake news.” In an undercover investigation, Britain’s Channel 4 recorded Cambridge Analytica executives expressing their willingness to disseminate misinformation, with its CEO saying, “these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they’re believed.”

U.S. society was unprepared: 62 percent of American adults get news on social media, and many people who see fake news stories report that they believe them. So Cambridge Analytica’s tactics worked: 115 pro-Trump fake stories were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times. In fact, the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories.

For this psychological warfare, the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica millions of dollars.

A healthy dose of skepticism

U.S. history is filled with stories of people sharing their thoughts in the public square. If interested, a passerby could come and listen, sharing in the experience of the narrative.

By combining psychographic profiling, analysis of big data and ad micro-targeting, public discourse in the U.S. has entered a new era. What used to be a public exchange of information and democratic dialogue is now a customized whisper campaign: Groups both ethical and malicious can divide Americans, whispering into the ear of each and every user, nudging them based on their fears and encouraging them to whisper to others who share those fears.

A Cambridge Analytica executive explained: “There are two fundamental human drivers … hopes and fears … and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that evoked that reaction from you. Our job is … to understand those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns. It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion.”

The information that you shared on Facebook exposed your hopes and fears. That innocent-looking Facebook quiz isn’t so innocent.

The problem isn’t that this psychographic data were exploited at a massive scale. It’s that platforms like Facebook enable people’s data to be used in ways that take power away from voters and give it to data-analyzing campaigners.

In my view, this kills democracy. Even Facebook can see that, saying in January that at its worst, social media “allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy.”

My advice: Use Facebook with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Timothy Summers, Director of Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Engagement, University of Maryland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or genocide? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.

Lapses

Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.

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