Playing politics with your Facebook data

Love Ron Paul but hate Rick Perry? Are you hot for Mitt but neutral on Newt? Politico is using your Facebook updates to predict how candidates will fare -- like it or not.

Don’t look now, but your Facebook status updates and comments are being used in political polling, whether you want to participate or not.

This week DC-based news site Politico unveiled a new collaboration with Facebook that takes information Facebookers volunteer about the Republican candidates for president and then tracks them to seek out trends.

For example: On January 10, the day of the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul were neck and neck in the number of times their names got mentioned on Facebook. Sure enough, they finished first and second in the primary.

But that’s as far as that data correlates. Paul finished a distant second, some 17 points behind the Mittster.

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Graph originally published by Politico.

Facebook also applied “sentiment analysis” to the data, looking for positive mentions (involving words like “love,” “nice” and “sweet”) of each candidate, as well as negative (“hurt,” “ugly” and “nasty”). Gingrich won the Negative mentions race in a landslide (duh), though Politico didn’t mention who won the Positive race. Maybe nobody had anything nice to say about any of them.

Lest you worry some geek is sitting in a Palo Alto basement poring over your status updates, take heart: The content is scanned by machines, so no Facebook employees will be reading your rant against Romney or your staunch defense of Paul (unless of course they’re in your friends list).

Still, doesn’t this violate Facebook’s privacy policy? Nope, not really. Facebook promises not to use your information outside the service unless it receives your permission, gives you notice, or removes your personally identifiable information from the data before sharing it.

Though Facebook didn’t ask for permission or even notify us this was coming, it did anonymize and aggregate the data – so it can do whatever it wants with your data.

My question: Is Facebook collecting this information only from people whose privacy settings allow everyone to see their updates, or are they also including folks who set their accounts to Friends, Friends of Friends, or Custom? If the latter, then I would argue this is still a privacy violation, even if it’s only a machine that doesn’t know who you are. Facebook just promised the FTC it would honor our privacy choices, and it needs to stick to that.

There are, however, plenty of other reasons why this is just a stupid gimmick.

If I understand it correctly, Facebook just counts total mentions of a candidate, not the total number of people who mention them. So one person with a political ax to grind can skew the data in unpredictable ways.  For example: a friend of mine whom I’ll call Tina (since that’s her name) is constantly posting politically charged items and getting into comment wars with her FB friends – typically business associates from the opposite side of the political spectrum. She alone probably accounts for 1 percent of Politico’s data.

Another problem: Unlike most political polls, which take pains to be random and representative of the US population, the Facebook crowd is skewed and entirely self selecting. Facebook’s user population tends to be younger, more affluent and more educated than the average American, per Gallup.

A lot of Facebook people don’t post anything political, so this poll is taking just a slice of a slice. As far as I know Facebook isn’t parsing this data based on political affiliation, so it’s probably including a lot of independents and Democrats who might have nothing good to say about any of these folks (and wouldn’t be eligible to vote in most GOP primaries in any case).

I could go on, but I won’t. Social media often offers interesting reflections on American or world culture, but not always. If the next election were held entirely on Twitter, Ron Paul would be president. That’s somewhat less likely in the real, flesh and blood world most of us live in.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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