Outing Gay Men By Their Facebook Friends

Using the “Interested In” field on Facebook, users can self-identify as straight, gay, or bisexual. LGBT people who aren’t out of the closet can leave the field blank and not list their sexual orientation on their page.

But if you don’t want to be out on Facebook, you may want to be careful who you accept as a friend.  MIT students designed an algorithm to determine a user’s sexual orientation based on their friends’ sexual orientations. Tests of the algorithm show that it is fairly successful in determining the sexuality of gay men (but not, however, very good at identifying lesbians or bisexual men and women).

With all the buzz about Facebook and privacy, users are concerned perhaps more than ever with controlling their information. But controlling your information is more difficult when it can be predicted by information on your friends’ profiles.

Luckily the algorithm only makes predictions, and can’t actually out anyone with complete accuracy. But why does the algorithm work so well?

The algorithm tests the “homophily principle,” which states that like attracts like. What does that mean? Well, in very simply terms, individuals tend to bond (or friend request!) people that are like them. It not only has the potential to uncover users’ sexual orientation, but also other personal information such as political views and gender.

It isn’t surprising that the “homophily principle” holds true for LGBT people. LGBT people are more likely to support gay rights, and more likely to have LGBT friends (after all, it’s hard to be friends with someone who doesn’t accept you for who you are).

Point taken, MIT. But let’s not forget that LGBT people should make sure to converse and befriend those outside the LGBT community. After all, those who personally know someone who is gay or lesbian are more likely to support gay rights. If only MIT had an algorithm for that.

Photo credit: benstein