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Online shopping, reading news articles or picking a Netflix movie: every time you look at a screen, you run the risk of being manipulated. Marijn Sax will look into the regulation of these 'manipulative digital choice environments' on a Veni grant. 'I am also susceptible to it, even though I know how it works.'

What is 'manipulation in digital choice environments'?

'On every website, app and online platform where you make decisions, manipulation can take place. Just think of the choices you make on, the movies you pick on Netflix and the articles you read on in the NOS app. But you can also think of games like Pokémon Go and Candy Crush. They are very cleverly put together. The whole interface is designed to keep you playing. I am also susceptible to it, even though I know how it works.'

So why do you keep playing those games anyway?

'One way they keep you engaged is by showing how you are doing compared to other players. Or if you fail it says "give up" or "play on". You have to actively make that decision. And you get a discount offer if you do want to quit. It is full of elements that make you play as long as possible and spend as much money as possible, even though it’s not in your best interest to play Candy Crush on a sunny afternoon. People with other interests pull you in by looking for weaknesses in you or your environment that they can exploit for their own gain.'

Are we also talking about the well-known online rabbit holes or influencing voters during elections through manipulation mechanisms?

'In election time, your attention can indeed be directed in a certain direction by platforms like Facebook and X. And yes, during the pandemic there was a big discussion about rabbit holes on YouTube and spreading disinformation, because that did not benefit public health. But influencing elections and the antivax movement are extreme examples, though, and in a way this is low-hanging fruit.’

Copyright: UvA
Europe has been too quick to use the word manipulation in legislation

What do you mean by that?

‘There is already a lot of attention for those things. But do we realize that it is bad enough that our interests are being obstructed with these techniques on an industrial scale? I understand the tendency to talk about the big implications, but this fact is bad enough. For example, a game like Fortnite played by many children is so sophisticated that kids are manipulated into spending money they often don't even have. At an academic video game conference, you see a developer who worked on Fortnite giving a cynical talk about how they can get people to play the game for as long as possible. At its peak, 300 million people, a significant portion of them children, played Fortnite. They are extensively extorting money from players' pockets. That's "only" about a kid's game, but it's just repulsive.’

How can we stop this kind of manipulation?

'The crazy thing is that the word "manipulation" is already used in European legislation, while there is no legal definition of it yet. I’m originally a philosopher and I want to take up that challenge in my research. For example: what is the difference with deception? The manipulation theory we have is old and about person A manipulating person B. That's very clear. But how do TikTok or Facebook fit into that narrative? The old definition is no longer adequate. You could also factor in that the sales party has a more powerful position that allows them to apply pressure. That also sounds like an ingredient of manipulation to me. At this point manipulation means something different to everyone.'

Legislation often lags behind technological developments. Has Europe in this instance been too quick to develop legislation?

‘Yes, Europe has been too quick to use the word manipulation in legislation. We all think we know what it means, but there is not even a beginning of a definition. That's sloppiness. It now risks becoming useless: it's there, but you can't do anything with it. The problem with such a vague term is that there is far too much room for interpretation, and big tech lobbyists know how to use that in their own benefit. That legislation is not used is one thing, but if that opens the playing field for lobbyists, we have a bigger problem. We need to be more precise; that's also going to help the enforcers. Simply writing down that manipulation is not allowed means nothing if you don't know what it means. You can easily write a Veni about it.'