Are there persuasive or misleading tactics being used?
Last updated: July 8, 2022 (Version 1)
What makes a piece of content particularly persuasive or convincing? Generally, it is because of how the information is being presented. Psychologists have identified a number of manipulative techniques designed to persuade an audience to feel or think a certain way. These techniques are effective because they take advantage of the way humans naturally perceive or react to information. In addition, these techniques are even more worrisome when the information is misleading or false. Recognizing and exposing the presence of these manipulative tactics can be a valuable tool.
The creation of this framework was inspired by research on inoculation theory, a social psychological theory that posits one can be protected from persuasive influence in a similar way that a body is protected from disease . The name comes from a medical analogy: immunity to stronger challenges is achieved through pre-exposure to weaker challenges. In the case of persuasion, the “psychological vaccination” is the education of the common manipulative tactics found in misleading narratives. Once armed with the ability to identify these core tactics, one is poised to develop resistance against a future manipulative “attack.”
The Psychological Manipulation Tactics Framework
ARTT’s Psychological Manipulation Tactics conceptual framework categorizes manipulation tactics for easier identification. While not an exhaustive list of manipulative strategies, the framework focuses on the rhetorical or psychological techniques generally observed in mis/disinformation campaigns and activities, and generally supported by recent research.
This framework consists of seven core concepts:
- Tapping into our natural bias to find connections by using conspiratorial reasoning
- Deliberately encouraging a response using “bait” by intentional trolling
- Gaining access to a trusted community by impersonation
- Manufacturing doubt by distorting the scientific consensus
- Evoking emotion and encouraging to think with feelings instead of reason
- Utilizing polarization to create or expand a gap between two groups
- Discrediting the opponent instead of addressing the argument
Each concept includes indicators that signal a unique manipulation tactic. Explanation of each concept and indicator can be found below.
Conspiratorial reasoning is a way of thinking that provides a frame of interpretation for events. Utilizing this type of reasoning can be an effective manipulation tool. Conspiratorial reasoning exploits one’s bias toward making causal connections between unrelated events, and the inclination to attach melodramatic narratives as explanations for those perceived connections [15, 32, 42].
|Reference to concealment||When the messenger purports to reveal a lie, and/or frames themselves as a truth-seeker||25, 29|
|Encouragement of pervasive skepticism||States or alludes that widely believed facts, well-supported by available evidence, should be regarded as suspect, especially when those facts are used to evaluate an explanation||3, 26, 29, 31|
|Utilizing Manichean terms||Distills a complex or nuanced situation into a stark narrative of good versus evil||3, 32|
|Insistence on causality||Implies a causal connection of events, despite a causal connection being unconfirmed or implausible||3, 14|
|Accusation of nefarious actors||References the (often secret) plotting of powerful, malevolent groups with nefarious intents that go against the public interest.||3, 26|
The act of “trolling” is when an online user deliberately “baits” a response by using inflammatory, irrelevant, or otherwise disruptive language. Online trolling has a variety of manifestations that are not always deliberately malign in nature. Intentional trolling, as opposed to other types of humorous or non-intentional trolling, is serious and ideologically motivated. Intentional trolling tactics can be manipulative because they take advantage of emotional reactions, heuristics (mental shortcuts) or identity cues .
|Provocation trolling||Also known as “outrage” trolling, with a goal to inflame, upset, or trigger emotion and response.||5, 19, 36|
|Consistently repeating the same message, which can increase the likelihood that a statement will be perceived as true.||18, 36|
|Discord trolling||Goal is to foster social division or public discontent. This is often done by amplifying the reductive social interpretations that confirm existing beliefs, support desired conclusions, or prompt certain feelings regarding groups of people and events.||2, 7, 13, 38, 43, 44|
Impersonation involves emulating the style or behavior of an individual or organization in order to gain access to a trusted community. This tactic takes advantage of the inherent trust individuals already have with a familiar identity, community or source .
|Identity impersonation||Impersonation of an individual or organization, such as posing as genuine online user, or appropriating the branding, campaign, or images of a legitimate organization||2, 4, 7, 20|
|Sometimes referred to as “astroturfing,” this strategy creates the false perception of grassroot community support for a certain cause; impersonation of support||44|
|Source impersonation||Posing as a legitimate news website or blog without the usual journalistic norms and credentials; impersonation of legitimate source||35, 42|
Making sense of scientific information is often complicated for those outside the scientific community. People commonly either utilize simple heuristics (mental shortcuts) or rely on experts to interpret scientific uncertainty or distill other complex information. Malicious actors can take advantage of these tendencies to intentionally distort the public perception of scientific topics [12, 21].
|Fake experts||The use of a non-expert (unqualified person or institution, or someone who does not possess relevant expertise) as a source of credible information to cast doubt on expert agreement||12, 31, 15|
|Giving contrarian or unsupported views equal voice with expert views, in order to give the impression of a legitimate balance of opinions or debate||12, 17|
|Skewing the science||The intentional mischaracterization of evidence||15, 27, 29|
|Exaggeration of risk||Occurs when risks and benefits are presented without a proper sense of proportion||25, 26, 37|
Emotion is a potent force that can influence an opinion or urge people to act. When utilizing content or rhetoric that does not add any informative value, but instead deliberately evokes an emotional reaction, one can exploit the human tendency to think and react with emotion instead of reason .
|Negative sentiments||A focus on generating negative, rather than neutral or positive, feelings||28, 45|
|Moral emotions create a connection between a person and society, and appeal to one’s sense of right and wrong. Moral-emotional language are words that describe a reaction to the social behavior of others.||6, 23, 24, 28, 39|
|Fearmongering (fear appeal)||The action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue||8, 37, 40|
|Appeal to protective duty||Language that implies the most vulnerable among us are in peril, and positions the audience as capable of, or even obligated to, participate in the fight for their justice||8, 25|
Polarization creates or expands gaps between two groups. Particularly effective at increasing in-group favoritism or discouraging empathy toward out-groups, polarization tactics exploit the tendency for people to self-categorize into groups, and to see the world through binary distinctions (e.g., us and them) [42, 38].
|False amplification||Intentionally exaggerating existing grievances between groups||8, 22|
|Occurs when one group of people (usually a majority group or an in-group) treats another group of people (often a marginalized group or an out-group) as though they are dangerous, alien, or to blame for a certain problem||16, 34|
|Group identity language||Distinct reference to a specific identity that distinguishes one’s membership in a group and highlights shared values (generally, one’s religious, political, ethnic or moral identity).||2, 33, 43|
Discrediting is a tactic that focuses on dismantling the public credibility of one’s opponents, rather than addressing any valid claims or accusations that the opponent levies. The act of discrediting exploits how a person’s credibility hinges on trustworthiness and competence [1, 42].
|Ad hominem attack||Deflecting attention away from an accusation or argument by attacking the source of the criticism instead||9, 41|
Attributing false motives
|Ascribing false or ulterior motives to opponents||9, 27|
|Denial||Denying that a problem exists, or refusing to respond or answer to criticism||10, 35|
Methodology and References
The ARTT team created the Psychological Manipulation Tactics Framework through a literature review in the fields of social and cognitive psychology, communication theory, sociology, and information research. Six concepts of manipulation, identified by Sander van der Linden and Jon Roozenbeek’s research, served as the framework’s foundation: impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling . From there, the team added an additional concept (manufacturing doubt), and amplified each concept with bespoke indicators.
After a review by ARTT project advisors, this framework is being released as an alpha version. The ARTT team has plans to iterate on this version in the next phase of our project. Inspired by the climate misinformation-based FLICC taxonomy , a future iteration could include an expansion to topic-specific manipulation techniques. If you have any feedback on this framework, please send an email to artt [dot] hackshackers [dot] com with the subject line “Manipulation Framework.”
We would also like to thank Hansika Kapoor and John Cook for their contributions to the development of this framework.
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