Is online manipulation always hidden?

by Michael Klenk

Manipulation often seems to involve a hidden influence. Manipulators are pushing the emotional buttons of their unsuspecting victims, exploiting their subconscious habits and leading them astray. That view of manipulation explains a lot of the current moral outrage about digital technology and the companies behind it. Digital technologies provide the unprecedented potential for hidden influence, and, therefore, pose a manipulation threat, or so the argument goes.

Image by Hasan Cengiz @

But the hidden influence view of manipulation is false. Manipulation neither requires hidden influence, nor is hidden influence sufficient for manipulation. For example, guilt-tripping is manipulative and also often clear as the day. When your partner who wants to go hiking, knowing that you don’t, has already packed the car with the beaming kids, it becomes hard to say no. You are being manipulated, but it is obvious to everyone what is going on. Conversely, hidden influence does not automatically make an interaction manipulative. For example, you may simply fail to attend to the actions of a nurse assisting in operation on you. So the nurse’s influence on you remains hidden, but that does not make it manipulative. Thus, the hidden influence view is inadequate to characterise and understand interpersonal manipulation. Manipulation may sometimes be hidden, but often it is not.

Therefore, we need a better understanding of manipulation. We cannot just rely on the fact that some interpersonal influence is hidden to determine whether we have a case of manipulation. Why care? Because understanding manipulation is crucial in the current critical debate about digital technologies in moral philosophy and related disciplines. Read more »