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Town Hall Seattle: Civics Series

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May 10, 2022

The United States is awash in manipulated information about everything from election results to the effectiveness of medical treatments. Corporate social media is a particularly effective channel for manipulative communication — Facebook being a particularly willing vehicle for it, as evidenced by the increased use of warning labels on false or misleading posts. Not to mention the inconsistent, confusing, and controversy-stirring ways that comments and posts are moderated in social media spaces.

While the methods of distributing misinformation have shifted with technological advancement, the principles of manipulative communication are nothing new. In Social Engineering, authors Robert Gehl and Sean Lawson explored how online misinformation is rooted in earlier techniques: mass social engineering of the early twentieth century and interpersonal hacker social engineering of the 1970s. The two methods converge today into what they call “masspersonal social engineering.” Through a mix of information gathering, deception, and truth-indifferent statements, the practice has one goal: to get people to take the actions desired by the social engineer.

Are there better ways to understand the manipulation methods at play instead of reducing all information to a true/false binary? Together, Gehl and Lawson discussed manipulative communication of the past and present and how we might improve the ways that information is shared and consumed in the future.

Robert W. Gehl is F. Jay Taylor Endowed Research Chair of Communication at Louisiana Tech University and the author of Weaving the Dark Web.

Sean T. Lawson is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Utah, Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare at the Marine Corps University, and author of Cybersecurity Discourse in the United States.

Buy the Book: Social Engineering: How Crowdmasters, Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls Created a New Form of Manipulative Communication from Elliott Bay Books

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