Online Manipulation: Hidden Influences in a Digital World

38 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2019

See all articles by Daniel Susser

Daniel Susser

Penn State University

Beate Roessler

University of Amsterdam

Helen Nissenbaum

Cornell Tech; New York University

Date Written: December 23, 2018

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.

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

Suggested Citation

Susser, Daniel and Roessler, Beate and Nissenbaum, Helen F., Online Manipulation: Hidden Influences in a Digital World (December 23, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3306006 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3306006

Daniel Susser (Contact Author)

Penn State University ( email )

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University Park, PA 16802
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.danielsusser.info

Beate Roessler

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Spui 21
Amsterdam, 1018 WB
Netherlands

Helen F. Nissenbaum

Cornell Tech ( email )

111 8th Avenue #302
New York, NY 10011
United States

New York University ( email )

New York, NY 10003
United States
212-998-5251 (Phone)

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