If Facebook Is Guessing Your Politics, You're Probably Safe From Being Pigeon-Holed

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We recently sent an article to the New York Times discussing how Facebook seems to allow even the sloppiest conspiracy story to take down pro-science pages, while groups like the "Food Babe" (® Food Babe LLC) and "US Right To Know" remained unimpeded in their quest to promote ill-informed gibberish about companies that don't give them money.

Facebook dutifully said they don't discriminate, they just proactively ban pages if enough people complain. Which is what happened with  Stephan Neidenbach's “We Love GMOs and Vaccines” (WeLoveGV) page.

That was met with some skepticism by our Dr. Alex Berezow and Neidenbach, who read the news and recognize that it happens far more often to one political side of the aisle. So why wouldn't the same political groups take down the science they also dislike? Thus an article was born.

Seeing a New York Times article on how Facebook 'knows' your politics, I am now inclined to believe it is not a vast cultural conspiracy on the company's part, it is really groups just gaming the system. In the case of Neidenbach, the osteopath and legendary supplement huckster Joe Mercola, D.O., got his readers together, and perhaps he got their Denier For Hire circle of US Right To Know, Sourcewatch and others to help, and they all clicked the Report button. The page automatically came down. After an appeal, Facebook put it back up, stating that they get thousands for review a week. They even went on the record talking about their process for the article by Berezow and Neidenbach.

Here is why I now believe Facebook isn't being mischievous. I went to https://www.facebook.com/ads/preferences to see what they knew about me with all that Big Data mining they were doing. In blue, I circled what they got wrong. Red is what they got correct.

Facebook politics

The only things they got right were things that were empirically known; my operating system, my title - American Council on Science and Health is easy to correlate to "health", and that I travel.

On politics, the subject of the New York Times article, they listed me as Very Liberal. Not just Liberal, but Very Liberal. I suppose socially I am, but that is because I am more libertarian than American liberals, because I am not trying to control everyone else's behavior; I have no interest in banning golf, gold fish, Happy Meals, Republicans and all of the other social authoritarian stuff American liberals latch on to. I am not anti-vaccine, anti-agriculture or anti-energy. Yet rather than being Very Liberal on the usual 'what quadrant are you?' tests I am in the middle, just slightly right of center, because I think people should keep a lot more of their money than they are allowed to do.

On religion, they list me as Secular. I suppose that is  somewhat true, the way the government needs to be secular, but it has a cultural connotation that probably doesn't apply. My wife works as the communications director for Lakeside Church in our home town and I enjoy the pastors they have there, they are a smart, literate group - but I don't see what my wife sees when we go into a church.  Does that make me secular? 94 percent of the universe is unknown to us, I am happy to leave explaining natural laws to science and bigger questions for theology. Stephen Jay Gould called them non-overlapping magisteria, and that seems fine to me.

Even my family life they don't get correct - they are baffled by the fact that I live in California but have an office in New York. So despite the fact that Married is listed right there on my page, they still think I am instead in a Long Distance Relationship (apparently with a married woman.) Again, it's because their metrics are basic. If Netflix ever thought you were a gay black man based on the stuff you have watched, you know these software black boxes are pretty simplistic. I am Away From Family a lot so that's correct, like it is for anyone who travels, but they think I don't have young children even though all of the pictures I post are of my young children.

So Facebook was probably just behaving automatically when it got all those button clicks on Neidenbach's page. Still, while he can be polarizing, he is nowhere near as polarizing as the "Food Babe" (® Food Babe LLC), so if it isn't a conspiracy by Facebook, why hasn't hers come down? It's entirely plausible that the pro-science community ethically won't behave that way, and that is why "Food Babe" (® Food Babe LLC) and ThinkProgress don't get banned. We know anti-science groups do behave that way. They use Freedom of Information Act requests to harass scientists, even if the only complaint they can have is that a scientist's school got a small, unrestricted grant from a corporation, so homeopaths and miracle vegetable buyers will certainly click a button if commanded. Maybe scientists are just too busy working.

All that said, your Facebook page may be a lot more accurate than mine - I'm in the science media field, and almost all academics and science journalists are left-wing. Facebook is clearly weighting a Friend list heavily. Atheist groups adopt a mantle of being pro-science so a lot of those following me could be declaring me secular.

Yet for most people, who cares? If their algorithm can sense what political leaning you are, it's probably because your content or your friend list are obvious to any learning routine. You probably don't want to see ads for Hillary Clinton if you are a Trump supporter.

Still, knowing I confound a company worth $500 billion feels pretty good. During this election season, I'll just enjoy those 'GMOs cause autism, vote for Jill Stein' ads that Facebook is bound to deliver to me.