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 »

Monday, September 9, 2019

Are we being manipulated by artificially intelligent software agents?

by Michael Klenk

Someone else gets more quality time with your spouse, your kids, and your friends than you do. Like most people, you probably enjoy just about an hour, while your new rivals are taking a whopping 2 hours and 15 minutes each day. But save your jealousy. Your rivals are tremendously charming, and you have probably fallen for them as well.

I am talking about intelligent software agents, a fancy name for something everyone is familiar with: the algorithms that curate your Facebook newsfeed, that recommend the next Netflix film to watch, and that complete your search query on Google or Bing.

Your relationships aren’t any of my business. But I want to warn you. I am concerned that you, together with the other approximately 3 billion social media users, are being manipulated by intelligent software agents online.

Here’s how. The intelligent software agents that you interact with online are ‘intelligent agents’ in the sense that they try to predict your behaviour taking into account what you did in your online past (e.g. what kind of movies you usually watch), and then they structure your options for online behaviour. For example, they offer you a selection of movies to watch next.

However, they do not care much for your reasons for action. How could they? They analyse and learn from your past behaviour, and mere behaviour does not reveal reasons. So, they likely do not understand what your reasons are and, consequently, cannot care for it.

Instead, they are concerned with maximising engagement, a specific type of behaviour. Intelligent software agents want you to keep interacting with them: To watch another movie, to read another news-item, to check another status update. The increase in the time we spend online, especially on social media, suggests that they are getting quite good at this. Read more »