Do you panic easily? Do you often feel blue? Do you have a sharp tongue? Do you get chores done right away? Do you believe in the importance of art?
If ever you've answered questions like these on one of the free personality quizzes floating around Facebook, you'll have learned what's known as your Ocean score: How you rate according to the big five psychological traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. You may also be responsible the next time America is shocked by an election upset.
For several years, a data firm eventually hired by the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, has been using Facebook as a tool to build psychological profiles that represent some 230 million adult Americans. A spinoff of a British consulting company and sometime-defense contractor known for its counterterrorism "psy ops" work in Afghanistan, the firm does so by seeding the social network with personality quizzes. Respondents — by now hundreds of thousands of us, mostly female and mostly young but enough male and older for the firm to make inferences about others with similar behaviors and demographics — get a free look at their Ocean scores. Cambridge Analytica also gets a look at their scores and, thanks to Facebook, gains access to their profiles and real names.
Cambridge Analytica worked on the "Leave" side of the Brexit campaign. In the United States it takes only Republicans as clients: Senator Ted Cruz in the primaries, Mr. Trump in the general election. Cambridge is reportedly backed by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire and a major Republican donor; a key board member is Stephen K. Bannon, the head of Breitbart News who became Mr. Trump's campaign chairman and is set to be his chief strategist in the White House.
In the age of Facebook, it has become far easier for campaigners or marketers to combine our online personas with our offline selves, a process that was once controversial but is now so commonplace that there's a term for it, "onboarding." Cambridge Analytica says it has as many as 3,000 to 5,000 data points on each of us, be it voting histories or full-spectrum demographics — age, income, debt, hobbies, criminal histories, purchase histories, religious leanings, health concerns, gun ownership, car ownership, homeownership — from consumer-data giants.
No data point is very informative on its own, but profiling voters, says Cambridge Analytica, is like baking a cake. "It's the sum of the ingredients," its chief executive officer, Alexander Nix, told NBC News. Because the United States lacks European-style restrictions on second- or thirdhand use of our data, and because our freedom-of-information laws give data brokers broad access to the intimate records kept by local and state governments, our lives are open books even without social media or personality quizzes.
Ever since the advertising executive Lester Wunderman coined the term "direct marketing" in 1961, the ability to target specific consumers with ads — rather than blanketing the airwaves with mass appeals and hoping the right people will hear them — has been the marketer's holy grail. What's new is the efficiency with which individually tailored digital ads can be tested and matched to our personalities. Facebook is the microtargeter's ultimate weapon.
The explosive growth of Facebook's ad business has been overshadowed by its increasing role in how we get our news, real or fake. In July, the social network posted record earnings: quarterly sales were up 59 percent from the previous year, and profits almost tripled to $2.06 billion. While active users of Facebook — now 1.71 billion monthly active users — were up 15 percent, the real story was how much each individual user was worth. The company makes $3.82 a year from each global user, up from $2.76 a year ago, and an average of $14.34 per user in the United States, up from $9.30 a year ago. Much of this growth comes from the fact that advertisers not only have an enormous audience in Facebook but an audience they can slice into the tranches they hope to reach.
One recent advertising product on Facebook is the so-called "dark post": A newsfeed message seen by no one aside from the users being targeted. With the help of Cambridge Analytica, Mr. Trump's digital team used dark posts to serve different ads to different potential voters, aiming to push the exact right buttons for the exact right people at the exact right times.
Imagine the full capability of this kind of "psychographic" advertising. In future Republican campaigns, a pro-gun voter whose Ocean score ranks him high on neuroticism could see storm clouds and a threat: The Democrat wants to take his guns away. A separate pro-gun voter deemed agreeable and introverted might see an ad emphasizing tradition and community values, a father and son hunting together.
In this election, dark posts were used to try to suppress the African-American vote. According to Bloomberg, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton's infamous "super predator" line. It targeted Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation's troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Federal Election Commission rules are unclear when it comes to Facebook posts, but even if they do apply and the facts are skewed and the dog whistles loud, the already weakening power of social opprobrium is gone when no one else sees the ad you see — and no one else sees "I'm Donald Trump, and I approved this message."
While Hillary Clinton spent more than $140 million on television spots, old-media experts scoffed at Trump's lack of old-media ad buys. Instead, his campaign pumped its money into digital, especially Facebook. One day in August, it flooded the social network with 100,000 ad variations, so-called A/B testing on a biblical scale, surely more ads than could easily be vetted by human eyes for compliance with Facebook's "community standards."
Perhaps out of necessity, the Trump team was embracing a new-media lesson: It didn't have to build everything from scratch. Mark Zuckerberg and others had already built the infrastructure the campaign needed to reach voters directly. When "Trump TV" went live on Facebook before and after the second debate it raked in $9 million in donations in 120 minutes.
In the immediate wake of Mr. Trump's surprise election, so many polls and experts were so wrong that it became fashionable to declare that big data was dead. But it isn't, not when its most obvious avatar, Facebook, was so crucial to victory.
On Monday, after a similar announcement from Google, Facebook said it would no longer allow fake-news websites to show ads, on their own sites, from Facebook's ad network — a half-step that neither blocks what appears on your newsfeed nor affects how advertisers can microtarget users on the social network.
There are surely more changes to come. Mr. Zuckerberg is young, still skeptical that his radiant transparency machine could be anything but a force for good, rightly wary of policing what the world's diverse citizens say and share on his network, so far mostly dismissive of Facebook's role in the election. If Mr. Zuckerberg takes seriously his oft-stated commitments to diversity and openness, he must grapple honestly with the fact that Facebook is no longer just a social network. It's an advertising medium that's now dangerously easy to weaponize.
A Trump administration is unlikely to enforce transparency about who is targeted by dark posts and other hidden political ads — or to ensure that politicians take meaningful ownership of what the ads say. But Facebook can.