Succumbing to Online Manipulation

‘The only way to be protected is to protect yourself’

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

A couple of days ago I received a forwarded post on my mobile phone which showed a thali and a person using it. Thali is a Hindi word for an eating plate made of steel with one larger and a few smaller compartments in which the different items of food are placed. It is either rectangular or circular. In that post it was rectangular. What was new was that on the left side there was a compartment conformimg to the shape of a mobile phone, in which in fact there was one. The person had his left hand on the phone while the right hand was being used for eating.

I do not know if this was an actual thali or a virtual one. But if in fact it was a real, newly-designed thali then one way of looking at it would be to congratulate the inventor on his innovation adapted to the ubiquitous utilization of the mobile phone, no doubt a brilliant commercial idea with the promise of booming future business. For all one knows, the same innovator or another one may soon come up with catering to left-handers as well: having the compartment on the right side of the thali – or even making two similar compartments one on either side, so as to ease production.

And the next thing is that people start searching online where this great new thali is available and ordering it or going to the outlet to buy it. No doubt the online advert will extol the virtues of such a design, such as its convenience in making executives and other working people save time and so on.

“The more electronic devices we use, all of which contain sensors which record in great detail our moment to moment interfacing with them, the more data we generate ourselves which are being used to influence us. The ways in which this is done through online messaging and advertising – a process in which we are often willing accomplices – may appear innocuous, but their potential to cause unintended, adverse consequences is now beyond doubt. The major fear is ‘that our emerging sensor based society will make surveillance capitalism more embedded and pervasive in our lives’…”


Which brings us to the other view about the whole affair, namely that it is a shameless giving-in, one among the thousands already conceded, to yet another whim of modern man. Without a thought about what further harm it would do to already disrupted relationships at family and other social levels. We must all have seen ‘forwardeds’ of groups of people in different settings including a living room showing family members – from children to adults – with their fingers stuck to their mobiles and their eyes glued to them. Imagine the same scenario now at dinner table in a family, or at a meal among friends.

Not one made to consolidate our sacred space isn’t it?

Whether such a thali exists or not – and if not, the idea may well materialize soon enough! – it is an example of how we can succumb to online manipulation. This is the subject of two articles that appeared on June 24, one in The Conversation and another in the New York Times, titled respectively, ‘How E-Commerce Sites Manipulate You Into Buying Things You May Not Want’ and ‘Explainer: what is surveillance capitalism and how does it shape our economy?’ Essentially both of them express concern about how online advertising attempts ‘to play on consumers’ known weaknesses’, and thus nudge the behaviour of online shoppers.

One technique described is the use of fake messages, as the NYTimes article illustrates: potential customers visiting an online resale store see messages on the screen that ‘regularly tell them just how much users of the site are saving’. For example the message ‘Alexandra from Anaheim just saved $222 on her order’, placed ‘next to an image of a bright, multicolored dress. It’s a common technique on shopping websites, intended to capitalize on people’s desire to fit in with others and to create a “fear of missing out.’

But here is the catch: ‘Alexandra from Anaheim did not buy the dress. She does not exist. Instead, the website’s code pulled combinations from a preprogrammed list of names, locations and items and presented them as actual recent purchases.

The fake messages are an example of “dark patterns,” devious online techniques that manipulate users into doing things they might not otherwise choose to. They are the digital version of timeworn tactics used to influence consumer behaviour, like impulse purchases placed near cash registers.’

The accompanying comment is: ‘Sometimes, the methods are clearly deceptive, but often they walk a fine line between manipulation and persuasion.’ Allusion is also made to the fact that ‘Many sites highlight the option they want customers to choose and play down alternatives. On one site studied by the Princeton researchers, the option to opt out of emails was in light gray type, making it look as though it could not be selected’.

As for ‘surveillance capitalism’, the example given is of ‘a bedroom bundle (mattress, bed base, pillows and sheets)’ being purchased ‘from a well known Australian startup’ and then being ‘swamped with Google and Facebook ads for beds and bedding. The week before it was puffer jackets’.

Surveillance capitalism is described as ‘a market driven process where the commodity for sale is your personal data, and the capture and production of this data relies on mass surveillance of the internet. This activity is often carried out by companies that provide us with free online services, such as search engines (Google) and social media platforms (Facebook).

These companies collect and scrutinise our online behaviours (likes, dislikes, searches, social networks, purchases) to produce data that can be further used for commercial purposes. And it’s often done without us understanding the full extent of the surveillance’.

Thinking back, I remember a few years ago seeing a mail dropped into my box about some local product or the other, and on display was the writing ‘51000 facebook followers’. Quite impressive one would think, for a small island. But since then I have seen several other adverts all with the same message of 51000 followers. The obvious conclusion is that there’s something fishy here – it simply cannot be true. I didn’t need any of the products advertised. But for those who believed this figure, they have been done in.

There are several aspects, from ethical to legal and regulatory, about such practices by corporate and big data collectors and exploiters. The more electronic devices we use, all of which contain sensors which record in great detail our moment to moment interfacing with them, the more data we generate ourselves which are being used to influence us. The ways in which this is done through online messaging and advertising – a process in which we are often willing accomplices – may appear innocuous, but their potential to cause unintended, adverse consequences is now beyond doubt. The major fear is ‘that our emerging sensor based society will make surveillance capitalism more embedded and pervasive in our lives’.

The late French geneticist Albert Jacquard once wrote about what he called les effets pervers de la science (‘the negative fallouts of science’) which are, in truth, the perverted utilization we make of the possibilities that science, as a neutral discipline, opens up. A striking example is the discovery of nuclear energy: it can be used to make killer bombs — as has happened – or to generate electricity. It finally boils down to us humans, whether we want to use the findings of science to destroy or self-destroy, or to improve and enrich our lives.

So likewise with the electronic data that is being generated, which we only can decide whether to use to good or bad effect. At the end of the day, as one commentator responding to the article said, ‘The only way to be protected is to protect yourself’.

How far are we willing to do so is a question that everyone must answer for himself.


* Published in print edition on 28 June 2019

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