A new study by a Michigan State University researcher probes the mechanisms behind the spread of mass online harassment and fake news by looking at the 'dark patterns' underlying the technology platforms.
In the science of user experience, dark patterns are psychological tricks incorporated into technology interfaces that are designed to get a user to do something they normally wouldn't do, like buying a product or signing up for a newsletter. In the case of online harassment, those dark patterns encourage people to share a false news story or jump on a harassment bandwagon without knowing they are participating in a deliberate effort to hurt or confuse others.
Liza Potts is a Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures who studies digital culture. She became interested in issues of online harassment in 2016, when she made what she describes as a "vanilla" post on Twitter, and received a barrage of harassing tweets. She noticed that the accounts posting the tweets and the tweets themselves had a lot of similarities, and wondered if there were dark patterns underlying users participation in the behavior.
She teamed up with Michael Trice, a researcher with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who had already taken an interest in the Gamergate online harassment campaign. In Gamergate, an argument that started with one person's grievances against a female game developer on the 4chan message boards expanded across social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and many more, and enlisted thousands of people, many of whom had no idea what they were getting into--and, more importantly, would never normally choose to participate in abuse.
"We wanted to investigate and learn how people are learning en masse to harass and go after other people," says Potts.
The research turned up some specific strategies used to groom users for participation in Gamergate. Notably, there was a set of rules circulated to instruct participants in how to start up anonymous Twitter accounts, how to make the accounts appear legitimate, and how to engage in attacks on targets chosen by Gamergate leaders.
Many of the same principles apply to other forms of online harassment, cyberbullying, and manipulations like fake news. According to Potts, because these systems are deployed across many social media platforms, they form a 'supraplatform' that the user is recruited to participate in. Once they become part of a supraplatform, users are vulnerable to engaging with dark patterns.
How can ordinary users avoid being taken in by dark patterns on social media? "We all have to get better at crap detection. It's actually just understanding what you're looking at and double checking it before you go forward with it," says Potts.