Outed by Algorithms

A friend sent me an article recently that fascinated me… So now, I’m sharing it with you. A couple of MIT students took a fairly common-sense notion — that gay man are more likely than straight men to have social networks full of gay people — and turned it into a computer program that will hunt down and “out” closeted gay Facebook users.

Outed by an algorithm. It’s digital gaydar.

The algorithm they developed looks at Facebook profiles of men who do not disclose their sexual orientation, then examines their social networks of online friends. If you’re a man whose Facebook profile doesn’t say whether you’re interested in men or women, the program aims to solve the mystery based on what your friends reveal about themselves.

The authors report that the program correctly identified men known by the authors to be gay, but whose profiles did not address their sexual orientation. Unfortunately the algorithm wasn’t as successful with lesbians and bisexual people — apparently gay men are more exclusionary in their circles of friends.

What’s even more interesting to me is that the project was completed for a class on ethics and the Internet. I wonder conclusions the authors drew about the ethical implications of such a study?

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