Facebook ‘dark ads’ can swing political opinions, research shows

Using “psychographic” profiles of individual voters generated from publicly stated interests really does work, according to new research presented at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The controversial practice allows groups to hone their messages to match the personality types of their targets during political campaigning, and is being used by firms including Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ to better target voters with political advertising with so-called “dark ads”.

“Before the referendum results, the concern we had was that people’s biases were being manipulated, either intentionally or unintentionally,” said Chris Sumner, research director and co-founder of the not-for-profit Online Privacy Foundation, who led the research. “Now we’ve seen this [research], I’m as concerned as I was before.

“It’s not a surprise, it’s what we expected to see. People on one side, whichever side happens to be winning at the time, are going to say ‘no, it’s not a problem’, while people who have just lost are going to see it as a big problem.”

Psychographic profiling classifies people into personality types using data from social networks such as Facebook. Sumner’s research focused on replicating some of the key findings of psychographic research by crafting adverts specifically targeted at certain personality types. Using publicly available data to ensure that the adverts were seen by the right people at the right time, Sumner tested how effective such targeting can be.

Would-be voters were sorted into two groups of people, those with high and low authoritarian tendencies, using a mixture of age, gender, location and interest targeting: younger women score low on authoritarian rankings, while older men score highly.

Geographically, Sumner selected five local areas which have been found in previous research to have low authoritarian attitudes – Cambridge, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and Hackney – and seven with high – Basildon, Chelmsford, Dudley, Thurrock, Mansfield, Rotherham and Swindon.

But the most important factor was the use of publicly stated interests to derive a psychographic profile of the recipients. Using information Facebook already knows about its users, Sumner created a high-authoritarian group of people the site has identified as being interested in conservatism and the Daily Mail, and a low-authoritarian group interested in liberalism and the Guardian.