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How you’re being manipulated online – quick guide to online manipulation

online manipulation
In the past couple of years the power of the Internet grew considerably with the expansion of social media platforms beyond any limit of our imagination and the increased reach of all internet services were granted by the advances made in smartphone technology. As of June 2017, 51% of the globe’s population has Internet access and more than 3 billion people use a smartphone. On top of this, with over 2 billion monthly active users on Facebook and over 300 million on Twitter, there’s no surprise that many have started using these channels as a tool for online manipulation.

Most of us probably already know this, but nothing is really for free nowadays. If you think that you’re not paying a price for any online service you use, think again. Even though there is no money leaving your bank account each month for using Facebook for example, or Youtube or even Google, that does not mean that they are free. And the price you’re paying could actually be a lot higher than you might imagine. However, that doesn’t mean you should shut all your social media accounts off and stop using the internet altogether. Like with many other things, sometimes all it takes to stay protected is to simply stay informed. When it comes to being manipulated online, things are no different.

Even though we do not deny its existence, we will not focus on the online propaganda used by governments to manipulate the masses. That’s a subject for another time. For now, let’s get into some more marketing-oriented manipulation techniques you may have already noticed while surfing the internet. Even though most of them seem pretty harmless at first, don’t forget that being manipulated online can sometimes have serious consequences.

Common ways you’re being manipulated online

The list of online manipulation tactics is obviously much longer than what we managed to include below. But these are some of the most common manipulation tactics and it’s worth knowing about them all.

The “secret menu” technique

This is one of the most common online manipulation tactics you will encounter. It’s simple, seemingly harmless, but very effective. It’s inspired by the secret menus used by some famous restaurant chains in the USA, who somehow managed to partly become famous because their secret menu, where their best and most profitable items were available.

In a similar way, online services may display only the options that are most profitable for them, or present you the options they want you to think are best for you. These partial or controlled “menus” are a great e-commerce tool, and you should definitely take extra care when spending money online. Before making a purchase, make sure you’ve seen all the options available and that the item or service you are purchasing really meets YOUR needs. Being manipulated online like this is not a tragedy, but paying extra attention may really save you a couple of bucks.

The “reward” technique

Did you ever feel a need to check your Facebook account? Or to log in to see if your favorite Youtube user you are subscribed to posted anything recently? If you ever felt that “need”, instead of just using these online services simply because you had nothing better to do, it’s because you’re hooked. I know it sounds harsh, but that is how online manipulation works for some online services. Whether we’re talking about games or social media platforms, they use some pretty serious psychology to keep you engaged.

And one of the ways they are manipulating you is something that has recently become known as the “variable reward schedule”, which is a great tool to use if you want to mold behaviors into habits. The way this works is very simple: instead of offering rewards to the users on a regular basis or after an easy to understand reward schedule, the rewards are being offered on a randomized basis.

Not knowing when you’re being rewarded for using a service is what will make you subconsciously use it more often, always hoping in the back of your mind that the next time you use it is going to be the time you get rewarded. It’s exactly what makes slot machines so addictive. You never know when you might hit that big win and you keep spinning the reels over and over again, until there’s no money left to play with.

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The fear of missing out

Ever heard of FoMO? The fear of missing out was first documented in a scientific paper back in 2004 and is apparently quite a big deal for our generation. It is defined as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. In other words, it’s the fear that one of your friends, loved ones or simple acquaintances are having fun without you or participating in some activities you are not involved or are in possession of some information you are not aware of. It is the fear of not being constantly online and up to date with what everyone you know is doing. And it’s being exploited big time.

Since it’s been scientifically proven that people tend to respond more acutely to the pain of loss than to the pleasure of gain, this online manipulation technique is incredibly effective. You’ve probably seen tons of Facebook posts similar to “You’re missing out if you’re not…”.

Also known as click bait, these posts also have their equivalent in e-commerce, where you can be tricked into buying stuff you didn’t need simply because your brain responded to the fear of missing out on a good deal.

The gradual engagement

Often used by online games, adult platforms, online casinos and services that offer customizable products, this online manipulation technique is incredibly rewarding, but definitely not for the user.

The principle is simple. In online games it is used by allowing users to play a certain number of levels of a game before needing to pay to unlock new content. It is used by adult platforms that require “age verification” and make you add your credit card information, even though no charges are going to be made. It is used by online casinos where you can get a couple of free spins simply for signing up, which will probably grant you a couple of dollars that you cannot withdraw without investing and playing more. It is used by services that offer customizable products which let you design or personalize something for free simply because it will be a lot easier for them to promote exactly that to you and it will be easier to convince you to buy something you designed.

It’s a dangerous manipulation technique, because it is very effective and more often than not, you will find yourself spending your hard earned money on things you never even considered buying.

The bottomless bowls

Another online manipulation technique that has its roots in basic psychology. It has been proven through a study that people eating soup from a bowl that was automatically and constantly refilled without their knowledge ate 73% more soup than the ones eating from regular bowls.

This is another way you’re being manipulated online by huge online services like Youtube or Facebook, which offer you never ending feeds. Maybe you visit Youtube to listen to one particular song, but with the Autoplay option on, you will end listening to much more than just that song. The same goes for Facebook, where no matter how much you scroll, it’s very unlikely you will ever manage to reach the end of your feed.

With this technique, you are being persuaded to spend a lot more time on these websites, which can only mean profit for them.

Dark Patterns

You probably noticed at some point in your life a massively successful website or online service that looked a lot worse than you would have expected a it to look considering the profit it was turning. Well believe it or not, there is a number of websites that are intentionally designed badly. But make no mistake, that is not done because of the laziness of the designer, there’s an evil online manipulation technique behind it.

Let me give you an example. You are buying something online, your products are in the cart, you proceed to checkout and you have two options: to continue to checkout adding a tip, and to continue to checkout without adding a tip. But the option to continue with adding a tip is well colored, while the option to proceed without adding a tip is somehow hashed out, in pale colors making it look unavailable? That is a classic example of dark patterns. Putting it in other words, dark patterns are a manipulation technique based on tricking your instincts. You would be inclined to press a button that stands out rather than one that is greyed out and even completely miss the fact that you end up paying a bit more than you planned.

There is a huge number of dark patterns being used on the internet and this manipulation technique is definitely one of the most effective. Pay extra attention!

Our final thoughts about online manipulation

Avoiding ALL the online manipulation tactics could turn into a full time job. The number of ways online services are trying to trick you into spending more money and more time using them is so big and some of them are so discreet that it makes avoiding them practically impossible.

The key is to be extra careful all the time. Assuming that nothing is really free is common sense nowadays and being aware of the most common online manipulation tactics is your first step. Just keep your eyes open all the time and remember: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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Catalin likes to consider himself a man of his words. He is a former journalist and now he makes a living as a copywriter. Passionate about creative writing he is always interested in finding the Fun and the Relevant in any of the topics he writes about.