Technology, autonomy, and manipulation

Internet Policy Review 8 (2) (2019)

Abstract

Since 2016, when the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal began to emerge, public concern has grown around the threat of “online manipulation”. While these worries are familiar to privacy researchers, this paper aims to make them more salient to policymakers — first, by defining “online manipulation”, thus enabling identification of manipulative practices; and second, by drawing attention to the specific harms online manipulation threatens. We argue that online manipulation is the use of information technology to covertly influence another person’s decision-making, by targeting and exploiting their decision-making vulnerabilities. Engaging in such practices can harm individuals by diminishing their economic interests, but its deeper, more insidious harm is its challenge to individual autonomy. We explore this autonomy harm, emphasising its implications for both individuals and society, and we briefly outline some strategies for combating online manipulation and strengthening autonomy in an increasingly digital world.

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