Facebook's ability to sway political opinion with 'dark ads' and user data revealed in latest study

The use of dark ads as a means of swaying political opinion has clouded the democratic process

The extent of Facebook’s ability to influence political opinions has been revealed in a new study highlighting the effectiveness of psychographic profiling in target advertising.

Research from the Online Privacy Foundation has shown targeted ads using voters’ publicly stated interests are more successful in shaping attitudes.

Known as ‘psychographic profiling’, the practice classifies people into personality types using data from social networks such as Facebook. It allows groups to hone their messages to match the personality types of their targets during political campaigning and has been used by the likes of Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ to serve ‘dark ads’.

Facebook has made no secret of its interest in capitalising on the advertising opportunities around political campaigns. The company has openly advertised the platform to politicians as a perfect tool to “persuade voters” and “influence online and offline outcomes”.

However, Chris Sumner, research director and co-founder of the not-for-profit Online Privacy Foundation, said he was concerned that the type of targeting was being used to orchestrate voters’ biases.

“Before the referendum results, the concern we had was that people’s biases were being manipulated, either intentionally or unintentionally,” said Sumner. “Now we’ve seen this [research], I’m as concerned as I was before.

The study used publicly stated interests to derive a psychographic profile of the recipients and then created ads specifically targeted at certain personality types.

Using Facebook’s library of user data, it separated people into either a high-authoritarian group, identified as being interested in conservatism and the Daily Mail, and a low-authoritarian group interested in liberalism and the Guardian.

Both groups were asked whether they agreed with the statement “with regards to internet privacy: if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear”. Only 25% of the low authoritarian group agreed with the statement as opposed to 61% of the highly authoritarian group.

The study also analysed how psychographic profiling can be used to shape advertising which can more effectively shift the electorates opinion.

Four ads were created around the same internet surveillance theme, two aimed at increasing support and two designed to undermine support.

Individuals in the highly authoritarian group were dealt an anti-surveillance advert which included the slogan “They fought for your freedom. Don’t give it away!”, over an image of the D-Day landings. The while low authoritarian group’s pro-surveillance message read “Crime doesn’t stop where the internet starts: say YES to state surveillance”.

The study claimed the target ads performed significantly better, with both groups found to be more likely to share a promoted post aimed at them.

The findings of the study add to growing concerns over high-tech ad targeting being used to influence voters with little transparency. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) responded to these concerns by opening an investigation into how politicians and associated campaigners use data to target voters.

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