Online Manipulation: Hidden Influences in a Digital World

4 Georgetown Law Technology Review 1 (2019)

45 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2019 Last revised: 11 Jan 2020

See all articles by Daniel Susser

Daniel Susser

Cornell University

Beate Roessler

University of Amsterdam

Helen Nissenbaum

Cornell Tech NYC; Cornell Tech

Date Written: December 23, 2018


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.

Keywords: manipulation, online manipulation, influence, autonomy, privacy, Cambridge Analytica

Suggested Citation

Susser, Daniel and Roessler, Beate and Nissenbaum, Helen F., Online Manipulation: Hidden Influences in a Digital World (December 23, 2018). 4 Georgetown Law Technology Review 1 (2019), Available at SSRN: or

Daniel Susser (Contact Author)

Cornell University ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

Beate Roessler

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Spui 21
Amsterdam, 1018 WB

Helen F. Nissenbaum

Cornell Tech NYC ( email )

2 W Loop Rd
New York, NY 10044
United States

Cornell Tech ( email )

2 W Loop Rd
New York, NY 10044
United States

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