Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Internet Control

I once worked with a spectacularly narcissistic woman who had written a self-promoting e-book and published it on Amazon. She then proceeded to badger everyone she knew, including me, to buy the thing and give it a five-star review. (I graciously declined).

 

Her, er, ‘reasoning’ was that her brainchild only needed a certain number of purchases and ratings to make it to the top of the Amazon rankings and make her a captain of industry. (It didn’t).

 

She Who Shall Not Be Named got me thinking: what if big companies and governments could use psychology to control people over the Internet on a much bigger scale?

 

It might sound implausible, but it’s already been happening for a while now, and in a way that’s completely undetectable!

 

Here’s how the Internet ‘Mirror’ does it:

Google is the most popular search engine worldwide, with over 60% of the market for desktops, tablets and mobiles. In other words, over 60% of people searching for information, products or services trust Google to give them a reality-based shortlist to choose from. So, one company is controlling the thoughts and buying decisions of millions of consumers.

 

According to research, 50% of our clicks go to the top two results of a Google search, and over 90% go to the ten items listed on the first page. Although very few people are in on the secret of Google’s algorithm, a massive SEO Optimisation industry has developed around it.

 

Companies know that the difference between boom and bust can rest on losing or gaining a single place on the first page of a Google search. So, one company is controlling not only many other companies, but an entire industry!

 

So companies can use ‘Trick Mirrors’ to control people; what about governments?

Senior research psychologist Robert Epstein carried out a series of studies where participants were shown manipulated search results for actual politicians standing for actual elections, on a simulated search engine called ‘Kadoodle’.

 

He was shocked when his findings showed that search engine results could change over 20% of people’s minds about which political candidate to favour in an election!

 

The psychological principle at work is confirmation bias: in other words, people feeling the need to conform to the norms of a group, even if it’s an imaginary group on a computer screen controlled by an unknown algorithm. And let’s not forget that search engines are companies: they exist to make a profit.

 

Smoke Hides the Deception

Epstein also discovered that by adding an opposition politician in third or fourth place on the search engine results, his team could conceal the fact that the rankings were biased.

 

In fact, over 80% of participants couldn’t detect when they’d been duped!

The psychological principle of false-consensus bias can be used to control who people will vote for in an election. The implications are massive: politicians have extensive marketing budgets at their disposal.

 

So what do you think? Is it time for a full-scale panic, or should we simply keep calm and carry on?

Rachael Zane

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. –John Lennon