market manipulation

Do Platforms See You as Customer or Prey?

The genesis of this post is based on some research I have been conducting related to solutions for governing the internet. So, it is a bit different than what I normally write about, but very relevant given the resent proposal by Elizabeth Warren to break up the major social media platforms.

The topic of most interest to me this week is based on the journal article “Digital Marketing Manipulation” by Ryan Calo.  Digital Marketing Manipulation, according to the article from Ryan Calo is “Nudging for profit.”  This, in my opinion is a very nice way of describing behavioral manipulation for profit.  In essence, marketers are becoming more adept ad determining what a consumer likes and constantly bombarding them with enough ads to influence the consumer to a desired outcome.  The desired outcome is the purchase of something regardless of whether consumers initially wanted to purchase it.

At the center of everything that digital marketers are seeking to do is a question of how far is too far with regards to persuading purchases?  However, before we can address this question, we need to think about how marketers are able to influence in the first place.  At the heart of that discussion is the data that marketers collect, how they collect the data, and how they use the data.

For years, platforms such as Google and Facebook have been collecting enormous amounts of data about consumers online habits.  Information like what websites you visit or what purchases you make, or even things as simple as what you “like” on a social media platform may seem mundane or useless to the average person.  However, in the hands of these platforms, it creates an extremely powerful digital profile that not just tells them what you like but it gives them the inputs necessary to start predicting information regarding your emotional state.  Based on determining your emotional state, they are able to figure if you have any specific purchasing habits while in that emotional state and push ads to the consumer.  Now, on the surface, this may seem to most as just good marketing.  But what if those platforms and marketers could take it a step further and begin to use the data collected and figure out your emotional vulnerabilities.  Then, they could manipulate your social media feeds in a way to push you towards that vulnerable emotional state.  Once, they see triggers in your online habits that indicate your emotional state matches their requirement, they push the ads of the retailer that has purchased ad space.  The end result being that you purchased something that you were not looking for when you originally visited that platform.   This is basically an attack kill chain.  Not dissimilar from that of a hacker.  The only difference here is that, we as consumers, have given permission to the perpetrator (Platforms) to perform the reconnaissance.   Actually, in this case, we not only give them permission, but we perform the recon for them in form of our “clicks”.

This is all possible because of the concept of the mediated consumer space.  In traditionally consumer interactions, the consumer had more control in the form of choosing to go into a store or choosing specifically what they want to purchase.  There was allowance for more intent on the side of the consumer.  However, today because of the concept of mediated consumer space, the consumer is treated more like prey and every platform you visit online is the trap, with the retailer acting as the unseen predator.  Basically, retailers allow the platforms to do all of the hunting by designing the platform in a way that is geared specifically for you in a way to influence you to purchase.  So, the consumer has less control of the interaction because the platform knows just as much, if not more about your purchasing habits than you do.  They are able to expose patterns in your purchasing that most will not recognize about themselves.  This can create an uneven bargaining power between the consumer and the retailer.

A key concept in the article is around the word autonomy.  In this article autonomy is defined, in the consumer context, as the absence of vulnerability or the capacity to act upon the market in the consumer’s self-interest.  However, as discussed in the article, given the amount of data the platforms and retailers have about you and their ability to manipulate behavior, is there true autonomy?  If there is not true autonomy, should the courts step in to protect consumers?  My personal belief is, Yes.  They should step in, but it should be very measured.  We can look to our modalities (norms, markets, law, architecture) as the key to protect the consumer.  Specifically, as mentioned in the article, laws should be created that protect user data.  After all, this is the source of power for the platforms.  If we use the Law modality, to protect user data, it would eventually lead to a new norm.  A new norm is important because in today’s society there is very much a laisse faire attitude toward protecting your own data.  Laws could help push that change in attitude.  The changes in law and norms, could push an architectural change by the platforms to respond to the new limits imposed on platforms by the laws.  This would all end up changing the market in the way people are marketed to.  It would potentially allow for true autonomy on the side of the consumer.  This would move the protection pendulum back towards the consumer while still allowing the market to thrive.

Blog based on the journal below:

Ryan Calo, Digital Market Manipulation, 82 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 995 (2014)

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