Online Manipulation: Hidden Influences in a Digital World

Georgetown Law Technology Review 4:1-45 (2019)
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Abstract

Privacy and surveillance scholars increasingly worry that data collectors can use the information they gather about our behaviors, preferences, interests, incomes, and so on to manipulate us. Yet what it means, exactly, to manipulate someone, and how we might systematically distinguish cases of manipulation from other forms of influence—such as persuasion and coercion—has not been thoroughly enough explored in light of the unprecedented capacities that information technologies and digital media enable. In this paper, we develop a definition of manipulation that addresses these enhanced capacities, investigate how information technologies facilitate manipulative practices, and describe the harms—to individuals and to social institutions—that flow from such practices. We use the term “online manipulation” to highlight the particular class of manipulative practices enabled by a broad range of information technologies. We argue that at its core, manipulation is hidden influence—the covert subversion of another person’s decision-making power. We argue that information technology, for a number of reasons, makes engaging in manipulative practices significantly easier, and it makes the effects of such practices potentially more deeply debilitating. And we argue that by subverting another person’s decision-making power, manipulation undermines his or her autonomy. Given that respect for individual autonomy is a bedrock principle of liberal democracy, the threat of online manipulation is a cause for grave concern.

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Author Profiles

Daniel Susser
Cornell University
Beate Roessler
University of Amsterdam

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