Surveillance and privacy Scholars are increasingly concerned that data collectors would exploit the information they acquire about our behaviours, preferences, interests, and incomes to manipulate us (Klenk,2021). According to information technology Scholars, Susser et al (2019), “online manipulation is the use of information technology to covertly influence another person’s decision-making, by targeting and exploiting their decision-making vulnerabilities.” Since the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in 2016, public worry about the potential of "online manipulation" has escalated (Susser et al, 2019).
The availability of personal information in the digital age has made online manipulation more common. A more individualized experience can be accomplished thanks to the easy access and evaluation of consumer data by big technological companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter (Spencer, 2020). The collection and analysis of user data plays a crucial role in manipulating online consumer behaviour. Tech companies track user interactions, preferences, and patterns, allowing them to tailor their products, services, and marketing strategies accordingly. This data-driven approach provides valuable insights into consumer behaviour, enabling companies to make informed decisions about how to manipulate user actions (Susser et al, 2019).
The experience is tailored in a specific way for users to keep them engaged with these platforms, often times leading to an addiction to social media. This has proven to be harmful, especially for adolescents, with data showing increases in mental health problems such as depression and anxiety (Keles et al, 2019). Social media companies have employed certain strategies, which involve features like Infinite scrolling, autoplay videos, and push notifications. These features keep users “hooked” and encourage prolonged platform usage. These design choices exploit psychological tendencies such as the need for completion and the fear of missing out, driving users to spend more time on platforms and increasing the likelihood of desired actions (Toda et al, 2018).
Before the digital era, companies relied on print and TV advertisements, which were aimed at a wide range of people. Pricing methods, terms of service, product bundles, and retail settings all had to be created to influence any consumer who walked in (Spencer, 2020). Given the large libraries of consumer profiles that arose with the rise of credit reporting agencies and data brokers in the 1950s, direct marketing did allow for some personalisation. With the huge aggregation of behavioural data online presently, companies are able to offer real-time personalisation for individual users globally (Boldyreva, 2018).
Research has revealed the impact of infinite scrolling on user behaviour. They found that users spent significantly more time on the platform when scrolling endlessly, compared to when a definite end point was reached. This addictive feature keeps users engaged for extended periods, increasing the likelihood of targeted advertising exposure and influencing consumer behaviour (Hui et al, 2023).
Another strategy employed by social media companies is the use of “gamification”. Gamification techniques play a pivotal role in shaping online consumer behaviour. By incorporating game-like elements such as badges, rewards, leader-boards, and progress tracking, tech companies enhance user engagement and motivate desired actions. The addictive nature of these features fosters continued platform usage and drives users towards behaviours aligned with the company's objectives.
It is not just social media companies, but ride-sharing applications like Uber have also invested in the use of behavioural concepts to help maintain usage of their platform. For instance, displaying surge pricing notifications during high-demand periods motivates users to book a ride quickly, promoting faster decision-making and increased usage of the service. These subtle tactics can manipulate consumer behaviour by capitalizing on urgency and demand (Sobolev, 2021).Technology companies also heavily invest in testing different variations of user interfaces, features, and content. They gather data to determine what drives the highest levels of engagement and conversion rates. This iterative approach enables companies to effectively manipulate consumer behaviour by optimizing their platforms based on user responses (Toda et al, 2018).Tech companies possess a great capability to manipulate online consumer behaviour. While these strategies can enhance user experiences and drive business goals, ethical concerns arise regarding user autonomy and privacy. Transparency, user empowerment, and responsible data practices are necessary to ensure that users have control over their online experiences and are not unduly influenced by manipulative tactics (Susser et al, 2019). Striking a balance between effective engagement strategies and user rights is crucial in creating a digital ecosystem that benefits both consumers and companies.