Adam Smith Blog

The dangers of dark nudging

Undercover Economist

“If you want people to do the right thing, make it easy.”

That is the simplest possible summary of Nudge (UK) (US) by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. We are all fallible creatures, and so benevolent policymakers need to make sure that the path of least resistance goes to a happy destination. It is a simple but important idea, and deservedly influential: Mr Sunstein became a senior adviser to President Obama, while Mr Thaler is this year’s winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics.

Policy wonks have nudged people to sign up for organ donation, to increase their pension contributions — and even insulate their homes by coupling home insulation with an attic-decluttering service. All we have to do is make it easy for people to do the right thing.

But what if you want people to do the wrong thing? The answer: make that easy; or make the right thing difficult. Messrs Thaler and Sunstein are well aware of the risk of malign nudges, and have been searching for the right word to describe them. Mr Thaler likes “sludge” — obfuscatory language or procedures that accidentally or deliberately encourage inertia. Voter ID laws, he says, are a good example of sludge, calculated to softly disenfranchise. Meanwhile Mr Sunstein has written an entire book about the “ethics of influence” (UK) (US).

And as we are starting to realise, Vladimir Putin is well aware of the opportunity that behavioural science presents, too. Rumours circulate that the Russian authorities are keen recruiters of young psychologists and behavioural economists; I have no proof of that, but it seems like a reasonable thing for the Russian government to do. I am willing to bet that not all of them are working on attic-decluttering.

According to Richard Burr, chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, Russian troll accounts on Facebook managed to organise both a protest and a counter-protest in Houston, in May 2016. Americans are perfectly willing to face off against each other on the streets, but if you want it to happen more often, make it easy.

A number of other memes, political advertisements and provocateur accounts — both left- and rightwing — have since been identified as of Russian origin. Social media networks have unwittingly sold them air time; news sites have cited them; people have shared them, or spent effort refuting them. Nudge isn’t the word for this, but neither is sludge. What about “grudge”?

The Russians are not alone in using grudge theory to manipulate public opinion. Three social scientists — Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts — recently managed to infiltrate networks of shills in China, who are paid to post helpful messages on Chinese social media. (Their nickname is the “50 cent army”.) Unlike the Russian trolls, their aim has been to avoid engaging “in debate or argument of any kind?.?.?.?they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely”. The tactic is, rather, to keep changing the subject, especially at politically sensitive moments, by talking about the weather, sports — anything. If you want potential protesters to make cheery small talk instead, make it easy.

Just as noble tools can be turned to wicked ends, so shady techniques can be used to do the work of the angels. For example, why not disrupt online markets for illegal drugs by leaving bad reviews for vendors? Research by social scientists Scott Duxbury and Dana Haynie suggests that because people rely on user reviews on illicit markets, law enforcement officers could attack those markets by faking negative reviews, thus undermining trust.

The parallel with Mr Putin is alarmingly clear: it is possible to attack democracy and rational discourse by creating an information ecosystem where everyone yells at everyone else and nobody believes anything.

But we should not give too much credit to Mr Putin. He did not create the information ecosystem of the western world; we did. The Russians just gave us a push, and probably not a very big push at that. Perhaps I should say they gave us a nudge.

Social media do seem vulnerable to dark nudges from foreign powers. But more worrying is our vulnerability to smears, skews and superficiality without any outside intervention at all. Messrs Sunstein and Thaler ask policymakers to make it easy to do the right thing; what have we made it easy to do?

It is easy to find a like-minded tribe. It is easy to share, retweet or “like” something we have not even read. It is easy to repeat false claims. It is easy to get angry or personal.

It’s less easy to distinguish truth from lies, to clear time and attention to read something deep, and to reward an important article with something more than a digital thumbs up. But then, none of this is fundamental to the business model of many media companies — or of the social media networks that spread the news.

Nudge, sludge or grudge, we can change this. And we should start by asking ourselves whether when it comes to news, information and debate, we have made it difficult to do the right thing — and all too easy to stray.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 November 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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