How you are being manipulated

Illustration by Ajay Mohanty
Our minds are being manipulated by artificial intelligence and algorithms every time we are online. While fake news is rightly getting due attention, an equally insidious effort is on to influence our thinking as consumers. 

Marketers have always tried to understand the mind of consumers in various ways including surveys and focus groups. However, the constant sharing and access to personal data is being used by marketers in a way that often prevents choice while misleading buyers. 

Artificial intelligence and online bots are creating trends and influencing buyers in an opaque manner that undermines fundamentals of consumer choice. Not to mention breach of privacy. 

Digital marketing is almost entirely dependent on information shared by a reader or a consumer. Some information is shared unwittingly, like clicking on an article on heart disease. Some information is forced when sites insist that we log in using our email or social media ID. Often the information is extracted in return for free WiFi offered by retail outlets. The registration process and app download help the outlets get mostly unhindered insight into a users activity. For the marketer, the need to get into our minds is fast turning into an ability to get under our skin. 

Here is how choice is compromised. If someone books a hotel in Croatia, the suggestions and ads that pop up all around will offer “similar”destinations like Slovenia. Often the AI suggestion offers exactly the same hotel that has been booked already. So the AI is trying to persuade us to book a hotel that we have booked already. If logic were to be applied, the travel site should offer more choices than the consumer would have considered.  It should have suggested  Mongolia as an option rather than another country in Europe. Similarly, when you buy a product online, the e-commerce site will offer more of such purchases rather than trying to offer options that we may not have thought of. It appears that the algorithms are designed mostly to offer what the site wants to be sold rather than what the consumer could have potentially liked. By offering consumers more of what they have, the marketers are preventing buyers from expanding their consumption basket. 

Such behaviour is relatively benign compared to the rising use of “influencers” on social media. Marketers have been spending billions on personalities who are considered influencers on social media. Through their social media feeds, they persuade their followers to buy product and services in a manner that isn’t quite transparent endorsement. 

AI is bringing such influencers to our screens with increasing frequency. According to a calculation by Wired.Com spending on such influencers has risen from $1.5 to 2.5 billion in 2016 to a projected high of $10 billlion in 2020. 

Online influencers do not disclose that they have been paid by brands to promote the products and services. Marketers keep the myth alive by creating more and more influencers who often have clay feet. Various sites in India and globally can create an influencer by using online bots that create fake activity. Automation based apps can make social media profile look active and buzzing. Likes, emoji responses, video views can be autobot generated for a price. 

Trends on Facebook and Twitter can be easily triggered if a bunch of bots and humans decide to push a specific hashtag in a strategic burst. Easily influenced consumers rush to join the trend assuming that a product is in vogue. Most of such activity goes under the radar of self-regulating bodies. It is a matter of time though before regulators wake up to such insidious behaviour.

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