LONDON/LAS VEGAS: ‘Dark ads’ based on publicly available interests on Facebook can be used to sway political opinions in an almost undiscoverable manner, a new study suggests.

The research presented at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, from the Online Privacy Foundation, used psychographic profiles of individual voters gathered from their publicly stated interests to hone messages to appeal to certain personality types, the Guardian reported.

“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 non-profit foundation. With the results of the study, those concerns were confirmed.

The study sorted voters into two groups – high and low authoritarian tendencies – using age, gender, location, and interest targeting. Roughly, this translated to people’s social outlooks, either conservative or liberal.

Psychographic targeting, a controversial technique that gained notoriety after its use during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and, allegedly, on the EU Referendum campaign, uses the voter’s typical mode of thinking to effectively shift his or her opinion.

In the study, four ads were created, two for increasing support for internet surveillance, and two for decreasing it. Each was served to the high or low authoritarian groups. The study tested effectiveness by looking at whether voters agreed with the statement: “with regards to internet privacy: if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”

In the case of high-authoritarians, the message appealed to the freedoms won in WW2. For low-authoritarians, the message said that “crime doesn’t stop where the internet starts.” In each case, the targeted ads shifted opinion much more effectively, with both groups more likely to share a post targeted at them.

From a base of 38% agreement from a random sorting, agreement rose to 61% when the tool identified those likely to agree, and down to 25% among those unlikely to agree. 

“The weaponised, artificially intelligent propaganda machine is effective,” Sumner told the New Scientist. “You don’t need to move people’s political dials by much to influence an election, just a couple of percentage points to the left or right.”

Facebook is not shy about its political capabilities, offering organisations and governments a way to reach citizens “directly and personally.” The social network also openly advertises its electoral capabilities as a tool to “persuade voters” and “influence online and offline outcomes”.

The findings from the study add to the growing concern that has seen the UK’s Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, launch an investigation into political uses of data analytics.

Data sourced from The Guardian, New Scientist; additional content by WARC staff