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Online  |  30 October, 2020

Understanding & Combating Online Manipulation: Setting an Interdisciplinary Research Agenda 

Public concern is coalescing around the problem of online influence—especially, the ability of data collectors to use information about individuals to influence their decision-making and shape their behaviors. Once confined to the realm of commercial advertising, post 2016, these worries have extended to the political sphere, where campaigns increasingly engage in sophisticated voter profiling and microtargeting, using information about voters to frame political pitches and appeals. Media manipulation and the problem of so-called “fake news”, for example, have attracted enormous attention in academic research from the social sciences to technical fields, such as machine learning, where efforts are underway to develop tools for distinguishing fake from genuine news.

Workshop Overview 

This workshop takes up pressing questions about processes and mechanisms characterizing some of the stages that precede the altered behaviors and the impacts of targeting and fake news. It will focus on the nature of the efforts to influence, manipulate, and shape human thinking and human behavior, raising and investigating critical questions that require conceptual, ethical, empirical, technical, and policy attention. For example:

  •  Ethical/Philosophical:  What distinguishes persuasive appeals from manipulative ones? How are targeting technologies related to other worrying practices, such as “dark patterns”? Given the information collection required for individual targeting, how are these concerns related to concerns about privacy? What (if any) are the harms of online targeting and manipulation? Should they be weighed against certain goods? Are the differences between “nudging,” persuasive technologies, and recent manipulative practices ethical in nature?

  • Social Science: How effective are targeting technologies? On average, how well do people understand the ways they are being targeted? Does awareness of targeting mitigate its effects? How do these issues relate to prior art, including “nudging” and “persuasive technologies”?

  • Technical: What mechanisms and systems enable, deliver, and enhance manipulative practices? What mechanisms can be brought to bear to detect the pipeline of manipulative practices? What mechanisms exist (or could be developed) for inducing accountability in both collaborative and adversarial settings?

  • Policy/Regulation: How could policymakers address these concerns? Should policies intervene ex ante or ex post? Are new regulations needed to constrain certain targeting practices, and if so, how would they interact with free speech considerations? What successes and failures have policymakers encountered when responding to related issues of illegitimate influence in other contexts in the past?

This event brings together leading scholars working on diverse dimensions of the problem in computer and information sciences, social sciences, humanities, law, and policy, to coordinate and cohere these efforts, mapping an interdisciplinary research agenda that encourages, and against which to benchmark, further progress. 

The workshop will take place via Zoom. We envision it as the first of two events; we will convene an in-person workshop at Cornell Tech in New York City when conditions allow.


We are excited to announce that Ryan Calo (University of Washington) will deliver our keynote address/provocation. A brief agenda for the workshop (all times US EST) is as follows:

  • 11-11:50am: Opening Keynote and Q&A

  • 12-12:50pm: Breakout Discussion Session 1

  • 12:50-1:20pm: Break

  • 1:20-2:10pm: Breakout Discussion Session 2

  • 2:20-3pm: Wrap-up Discussion

Workshop Organizers

Lee McGuigan (Cornell Tech), Helen Nissenbaum (Cornell Tech),

Beate Roessler (University of Amsterdam), and Daniel Susser (Penn State University).

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Fall 2020

More info to follow soon!