The Problem of Online Manipulation

66 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2019

See all articles by Shaun B. Spencer

Shaun B. Spencer

University of Massachusetts School of Law - Dartmouth

Date Written: March 12, 2019


Recent controversies have led to public outcry over the risks of online manipulation. Internal Facebook documents discussed how advertisers could target teens when they feel particularly insecure or vulnerable. Cambridge Analytica suggested that its psychographic profiles enabled political campaigns to exploit individual vulnerabilities online. And researchers manipulated the emotions of hundreds of thousands of Facebook users by adjusting the emotional content of their news feeds. This Article attempts to inform the debate over whether and how to regulate online manipulation of consumers. The Article details the history of manipulative marketing practices and considers how innovations in the Digital Age allow marketers to identify and even trigger individual biases and then exploit them in real time. Part II surveys prior definitions of manipulation and then defines manipulation as an intentional attempt to influence a subject’s behavior by exploiting a bias or vulnerability. Part III considers why online manipulation justifies some form of regulatory response. Part IV identifies the significant definitional and constitutional challenges that would arise in any attempt to regulate online manipulation directly. The Article concludes by suggesting that the core objection to online manipulation is not its manipulative nature but its online implementation. Therefore, the Article suggests that, rather than pursuing direct regulation, we should use the threat of online manipulation as another argument to support the push for comprehensive data protection legislation.

Suggested Citation

Spencer, Shaun B., The Problem of Online Manipulation (March 12, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Shaun B. Spencer (Contact Author)

University of Massachusetts School of Law - Dartmouth ( email )

333 Faunce Corner Road
North Dartmouth, MA 02747-1252
United States
508-985-1192 (Phone)

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