Seminar

2019-05-09 15:30 - 17:00 Erasmus building, E2.50

Our brains are being “hacked”, according to Yuval Noah Harari, describing the growing influence of big tech corporations. Facebook was “hijacked”, according to Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, mentioning that the “experiment” was unethical because it involves “playing with the psychology of an entire country”. The topic of online manipulation has also gained attention in recent academic discussions, where manipulation is distinguished from other types of influence such as persuasion, nudging and coercion. One important characteristic of manipulation is that the influence must be hidden. A manipulator can only infiltrate someone’s decision-making process if the “target of influence is unaware of or doesn’t understand how they are being influenced” (Susser et al. 2019). There’s a potential problem, though, which I will call the “manipulation paradox”, which is that many people these days seem to know they are (potentially) manipulated online. If not knowing that one is being manipulated is a necessary condition for being manipulated, it would seem to follow that people who for instance heard about the Cambridge Analytica and other scandals and more generally know about the existence of persuasive technologies and online profiling, aren’t manipulated. In this talk, I first of all provide an overview of the recent literature on (online) manipulation and the positive value or capacity that manipulation threatens or undermines. Next, I turn to the manipulation paradox, and consider various ways of responding to it. A proper response, I suggest, requires telling a more elaborate story about types, degrees and contexts of knowledge – and thus the different senses of ‘knowing’ one is manipulated – for which I provide a rough first sketch.