At OPF we are keen that the media picks up and stimulates public debate about online privacy issues. Encouragingly, we have seen a number of press articles picking up on the buzz around our latest experiment and the first public discussion of the results at DEFCON on Sunday 29 July  titled “Can Twitter really help expose Psychopath killers’ traits?”. The talk title is actually a question rather than a statement and is a response to a speculative headline we saw in 2011 titled “Can Twitter help expose Psychopath killers’ traits?“.

More recently Fox News headlined “Psychopaths can be spotted on Twitter, study says

Fox News

Although, we understand journalism needs a good ‘story’, we should say that we have not stated that it is possible to spot Psychopaths on twitter; in fact, at this time (25 July 2012) our study and its results are yet to be published.

This sort of press coverage of social media personality studies is an issue we highlight in both the talk and the soon-to-be published paper.  Our concern is that such media stories can give support to people who may vet potential employees, for instance, based on their social media activity, including Twitter (the 2012 Jobvite survey suggests a lot of hiring managers do that, despite issues with discrimination and privacy).  The debate is welcome to get society thinking about how certain groups may be using our personal information on the web, but reality is of course a little more complicated.

While there are some fascinating relationships between language and personality traits (relationships which support other studies on linguistics and personality), the practical uses of knowing about these relationships is, in our opinion, not yet understood well enough to support assertions like those used in the Fox headline.

Our research suggests that social media profiling can provide an advantage to determining personality types (and not just Psychopathy); certainly more than the toss of a coin provides. Our initial research shows that social profiling can provide a bigger edge than we expected. However, these edges are not as definitive or concrete as the Fox headline suggests. A question we discuss as part of the talk and paper is whether that advantage is enough to determine something about an individual and if there’s ever a valid case for attempting to do so. We intend to provide a critical examination of that question, including a discussion of possible future uses, such as understanding societal changes.

Chris and Matthew, OPF Co-founders