Social Media is a Gold Mine for Cold Readers

At the opening reception of TAM 2012 I had an interesting conversation about potential uses of technology by psychics, tarot readers and mediums. A recent Belgian public service announcement dramatically demonstrates what I was talking about, in a humorous way.

As most skeptics know, many of these performers use a technique known as cold reading to convince clients they have access to hidden knowledge, when in fact the client provides all the clues themselves.

But cold reading can be notoriously hard to do in practice, and sometimes leads to spectacular failures. So some psychics look for other ways to know about their clients.  This is known as warm or hot reading. Peter Popoff was famously called out for using hot reading techniques at his faith healing sessions in the 1980s by James Randi.

Hot reading can be difficult too, often you do not get advance notice of who will be at the session, so how do you research the people without tipping them off? So it can work in some situations but not all.

But what if you were a psychic and your clients were voluntarily providing information about themselves to you on the Internet, free for the taking?  Read on for how this works…

The aforementioned Belgian PSA is actually about identity theft and safety online, and not really about exposing psychics.  But it is well worth a look because it is well done:

The thing is, you don’t really need a squad of stereotypical balaclava-wearing hackers to pull this off. Not in the least.

Performance venues and ticket sites are increasingly use social media to engage and connect event goers. Ticketmaster has integrated Facebook into their site, allowing users to “Like” the event, and even in some cases record their seat location so friends can sit near them. Other services are integrating directly into Facebook to buy tickets directly from the Facebook event page.

All of these interactions leave details behind.  Check out this Facebook event page for an upcoming Sylvia Browne appearance:

Several people have indicated they are going to this event. With just a click on their names, anyone (including Sylvia Browne) could have immediate access to information about them such as names of their relatives, where they live now and where they have lived before, where they went to school, and so on. This is fantastic material! But the Facebook page above only indicates peoples’ intent to attend.  How do you know if they are actually in the audience?

Foursquare is an application that allows users to “check in” to locations and receive discounts and tips, as well as alert their friends to where they are.  Foursquare has a Venue Push API that allows the owner of the venue to get a real-time feed of who is checking in to their location. Imagine how this could be used to identify people right as they arrive at the venue for the psychic appearance. From their Foursquare account you could find the names of their friends and link to their Twitter account to find out more.

Can Skeptics Take Advantage of This?

I can see a number of ways that skeptics could take advantage of this.

If you are protesting outside a psychic’s appearance venue you could use these techniques to hot-read people as they arrive – and then reveal your technique immediately to the marks. Most social media profiles include pictures of the people, so you could recognize and target the people you have hot read as they walk up.  Naturally this would require lots of advance preparation to gather the information and study it (including the photos) so you could take advantage at the proper moment.

If you are actually attending the session, you could take careful note of what names are called out and so on, and try to match them to social media information you’ve been able to gather. This might be a good way to determine which psychics are using these techniques – something skeptics should share with each other through blog reports. That way one skeptic group could build on the another’s work as the psychic tours the country.

Social Media Stings

A more ambitious approach would be to attempt a social media “sting”. Create a handful of realistic fake profiles for people you will send to attend the event, and be sure to indicate intent to attend on Facebook, check in on Foursquare and Yelp, and so on. Make sure the photo on the profile matches the person sent in to do the sting and all the details on the profiles are consistent and cross-linked.

Then attend the event and listen carefully to see if they are using information gleaned from your profile. Participate as a normal audience member might, agreeing with the false info when it is being called out.

Whether to do the reveal on-site or later in the media or both is up to you. Perhaps someone like Mark Edward would have a good strategy idea on this.

There are (of course) problems with this technique. For instance, it might not be clear that a given psychic uses social media at all, so you could do much prep work for nothing. The fake profiles would probably be terms of service violations on the various services.

Please discuss pros and cons of various ways skeptics could use this in the comments.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

4 Responses to Social Media is a Gold Mine for Cold Readers

  1. Granite State Skeptics also did a protest, our write up about it is here – http://www.granitestateskeptics.org/2011/07/05/john-edward-protest-a-recap/

  2. sgerbic says:

    Amazing Tim. I can’t tell you publicly how timely this is. Its like your psychic or something.

  3. Pingback: Content Roundup for October 2012 « Skeptical Software Tools

  4. Pingback: Long Island Medium – The Learning Channel « Illuminutti

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