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Social Engineering for Fun and Profit. And Other Stuff

We the people are easily manipulated. Perhaps not you or me specifically—some of us are suspicious of any such attempts—but the population at large. Thanks to Google’s AdWords and YouTube videos, it’s easier than ever to sway people’s opinions with social engineering. That may or may not be a bad thing, but it’s certainly worth pondering.

In 2016, the Google-incubated Redirect Method used ads to deradicalize would-be Islamic State extremists, redirecting 320,000 people to videos debunking ISIS’s recruitment narratives. But the Redirect Method wasn’t a one-off—the groups behind it distilled it into a 44-step blueprint.

In an opinion piece at the New York Times, Patrick Berlinquette, founder of the search engine marketing consulting firm Berlin SEM, explains how he used the Redirect Method’s blueprint to change the minds of suicidal people. His ads for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline generated a 28% conversion rate, 7 times the average rate of 4%, in just a week. A second experiment to redirect prospective school shooters to a crisis hotline failed, but the point remains—it’s easy for anyone to use Google’s precise targeting tools and redirect ads to promote their own agenda. In some regards, this conclusion is obvious—it’s what marketers do every day. But it raises questions about the ethics involved, how to protect yourself and others from such manipulation, and what Google’s role in all this should be. What do you think?

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Comments About Social Engineering for Fun and Profit. And Other Stuff

Notable Replies

  1. This, to me, is what is scary about the power of Alphabet (Google and YouTube), FaceBook and the others. The author’s example of suicide prevention is noble but it could be used for less savory ends

    Unfortunately I don’t think there is a way to manage / control this

  2. That’s exactly my feeling—the genie is out of the bottle, and there’s nothing we can do to put it back in. And it’s not just Alphabet, but Facebook and Twitter too, and probably their equivalents in other parts of the world where they aren’t the dominant advertising platforms.

    All we can do is not be sheep.

  3. Maybe you could start a techcentric or Mac centric Mastodon instance.

  4. Serious question: how would that help?

  5. I think these tools should also be used to counter the spread of false information and correct or remove erroneous posts. Misinformation about the two largest mass murders so far this month have been spreading across social media unchecked:

  6. That’s an interesting thought—perhaps the fact-checking organizations should supplement their full-text articles with such banners aimed at people searching for the misinformation.

  7. You can bet the Russians, and maybe others, will be using these tools to influence the elections in 2020.

  8. Just as a hedge in case you don’t agree with behaviour of dominant organisations that run social networks.

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