Simple self-reflection exercises to inoculate against online manipulation

What is the boost?

Taking its cue from inoculation and learning from experience, self-reflection helps people see through manipulation strategies that are deployed online. The boost thereby increases people’s autonomy online, where precisely targeted advertisement can be manipulative and subtle.

Which challenges does the boost tackle?

There is a knowledge gap between users and advertisers online. Platforms like social media collect behavioral data about their users that advertisers can exploit by tailoring images and messages towards inferred vulnerabilities (e.g., the tendency of extraverts to like larger groups of people). In the worst case, these techniques are manipulative and endanger people’s autonomy online. The usual transparency measures, like “why am I seeing this?” information on Facebook ads, are not effective in mitigating this danger.

How does the boost work?

People are prompted to actively reflect on their personality (e.g., whether they are introverted or extraverted), for instance by filling out a simple personality test (with or even without feedback).

Which competence(s) does the boost foster?

The ability to detect the strategies behind manipulation attempts online (e.g., microtargeted advertising).

What is the evidence behind it?

In one experiment, participants were asked to detect the advertisements that were targeted to them (Lorenz-Spreen et al., 2021). The control group detected up to 26 percentage points fewer advertisements compared to the group that went through the intervention. See here for a more in-depth description of the study.

Key reference

Lorenz-Spreen, P., Geers, M., Pachur, T., Hertwig, R., Lewandowsky, S., & Herzog, S. M. (2021). Boosting people’’s ability to detect microtargeted advertising. Scientific Reports, 11, Article 15541.