The Facebook Like button has become an integral part of the Internet as it greets us on countless websites – we can “like” an interesting newspaper article or a recipe on a baking site. Unsurprisingly, many of us click on this button on an everyday basis; the amount of Facebook users that “likes” content posted by their friends at least once a day totals 44%, with 29% doing so several times per day (Smith, 2014). There exist many reasons for “liking” something: it is an efficient means of showing agreement, it affirms something  about ourselves and it can also convey virtual empathy. (Seiter, 2015)

However, have we ever paused to consider the overwhelming quantity of information about ourselves that we dole out to the public by clicking on this seemingly insignificant button? In a recent study conducted by the University of Cambridge and Microsoft Research, it was found that analysing an individual’s Facebook Likes can predict a user’s personality and background to a singular level of accuracy. The research process consisted of over 58,000 volunteers providing researchers with their Facebook Likes, detailed demographic profiles and the results of several psychometric tests, which were then processed using a model. The results were able to predict, amongst other things, whether the volunteer was male or female within 93% accuracy, whether they were Caucasian or African American within 95% accuracy and even whether they drank alcohol (70%) or took drugs (65%)! Needless to say, I was amazed at how accurately features such as background and lifestyle can be deduced from Facebook Likes. The researchers also commented:

“For example, observing users’ Likes related to music provides similar information to observing records of songs listened to online, songs and artists searched for using a Web search engine, or subscriptions to related Twitter channels. In contrast to these other sources of information, Facebook Likes are unusual in that they are currently publicly available by default.” (Kosinski, Stillwell and Graepel, 2013)

Privacy is naturally a topic that arises from such an observation. Although we may thoughtlessly but frequently press this blue thumbs-up button to show approval of something, we rarely realise that we are voluntarily dishing out details about our personal lives to whomever (or whatever, in the case of a robot) happens to glance through our Likes page.

Likes can also be examined in the dimension of the business world, a dimension which reveals the vast influence of Likes on profit-making and customer-targeting. Unfortunately, this is where the dark side of Likes come in, as some businesses seek to take the shortcut to popularity by purchasing fake Likes. Unbeknownst to many of us, this is actually an extremely lucrative business; fake Facebook activities bring in an estimated $200 million a year. (Mendoza, 2014) Most of this fake “liking” (along with many other illicit activities) is carried out on “click farms”, where underpaid workers are employed to manually click on clients’ social media pages. Unique IT World in Dhaka, Bangladesh is an example of such a click farm. According to Mendoza, a recent check on Facebook showed Dhaka was the most popular city for many, including Google’s Facebook page, with 15.2 million Likes and – you’ll never guess – Facebook’s own security page, with 7.7 million Likes!

It just goes to show that, when money is involved, even a simple Like button can come under abuse!

Bibliography

Smith, A. (2014) 6 New Facts About Facebook. Available at: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/03/6-new-facts-about-facebook/

Seiter, C. (2015) The Secret Psychology of Facebook: Why we Like, Share, Comment and Keep Coming Back. Available at: https://blog.bufferapp.com/psychology-of-facebook

Kosinski, M., Stillwell, D. and Graepel, T. (2013) “Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior”, PNAS, 110(15), pp. 5802-5805. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1218772110

Mendoza, M. (2014) How Facebook Likes Get Bought and Sold. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/05/buy-facebook-likes_n_4544800.html

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