June 16, 2021

Illuminating ‘Dark Patterns’ Is Key to Improving Our Democracy

Viviana Padelli and Alec Saslow

You’ve probably tried to unsubscribe from an email list, but the process is needlessly complicated. You’ve seen ads disguised to make you more likely to click on them, watched costs rise in your online shopping cart right before checking out, or been tricked into publicly sharing more information than you intended. In one way or another, most of us have experienced online “dark patterns,” tricks used by websites and apps that make us do something we never intended. 

Increasingly, dark patterns are being used to manipulate political information online and erode trust in our democracy. That’s why policymakers must step in to ensure that platforms prioritize democracy over corporate profits and prevent the use of deceptive tactics to influence online users’ choices for personal gain. 

Last month, Decode Democracy submitted comments to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as the agency works to gather information about dark patterns and decides how to combat their most harmful consequences. Our recommendations to the FTC focused on three key areas:

  • Take a forward-looking approach to defining dark patterns. Regulatory and legislative attempts to address dark patterns have so far focused on user interfaces, but the digital deception playbook is quickly evolving to include a growing universe of manipulative tactics. To better address the problem, the FTC needs to take a forward-looking definition of dark patterns that focuses on output (such as the manipulation of online information) and outcome (such as influencing consumers’ choices for personal gain). Anchoring future enforcement actions to an overly technical definition of dark patterns would allow malicious actors to game the system and undermine current efforts to protect online users.
  • Pay particular attention to online manipulative tactics that erode the functioning of our democracy. Many prominent social media interfaces are designed to extract data from online users and process it without their informed consent. At the same time, secretive algorithms are designed to maximize user engagement, transparency about how ads are targeted online is limited, and the use of bots, troll farms, and fake social media accounts makes it possible to manufacture a false sense of public opinion. The FTC should carefully scrutinize the types of dark patterns that not only drive consumers crazy, but that limit the ability of our democracy to function properly.
  • Keep the focus on the principles of privacy, transparency, and accountability. By aligning a response to dark patterns around core values that protect online users and the integrity of our democracy, policymakers can focus on enforcement and legislation that has the greatest impact. Personal data acquired using dark patterns and without users’ explicit consent shouldn’t power the marketplace of online political activity. Additionally, anyone should be able to easily access information about who is spending money online to influence their opinion about politics. And to promote accountability, policymakers should ensure that platforms prioritize democracy over corporate profits ⁠— for example by requiring platforms  disclose their algorithms and promote authoritative news sources while reducing the reach of misinformation.  

As lawmakers, federal agencies, and social media companies attempt to rein in deceptive online practices, addressing dark patterns that are depriving users of their right to privacy and putting our democracy at risk must be a priority.

Click here to read Decode Democracy’s full submission to the FTC on dark patterns.

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