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  • 15th Apr 2019

Tackling online harms and manipulations: download our new paper

Our new publication aims to spark ideas and debate on online harms

Most of us will spend a large chunk of our free time over the next year looking at screens. But how much of that activity will we have chosen? And what will those hours mean for what we buy, who and what we know, and how we spend the rest of our time, even when we are offline?

In the same way that our behaviour in the offline world is sensitive to subtle cues from the environment, our behaviour in the online world is shaped by the design and characteristics of the websites, platforms and apps we interact with. Woven through the rapidly evolving world of online markets and social media are countless nudges. While some of these are helping us to make healthier choices, achieve our personal goals and connect with each other, others are deployed to more harmful and manipulative ends – exploiting our behavioural biases, adding deliberative frictions to thwart positive choices and harnessing our mispredictions and information deficits.

These are the types of challenges we explore in our new report, out today. The report is intended to be exploratory – a discussion paper to spark ideas and debate – rather than a definitive statement. As well as setting out the challenges, we outline some of the possible responses. We set out a framework for behavioural interventions that can and should be deployed by governments, regulators, companies (and citizens themselves) to shape fairer, better online environments.

An emerging framework for behavioural interventions in online markets

Join the discussion – download our new paper

Here are a few of the issues we explore:


You can set up an online news subscription with one click, yet if you want to cancel you’ll find yourself in a complicated loop of online and offline hurdles: calling a phone number during restricted business hours, filling out a detailed form and posting it to the company, or even being required to visit a physical store.

These muddy frictions, collectively known as sludge, are deliberate and they prevent us from acting in our best interests.

We recommend that cancelling online subscriptions, unsubscribing from mailing lists or leaving a platform should be as easy as signing up. To call out other areas where companies are introducing sludge online, we are exploring establishing an annual, consumer-led ‘Sludge’ award.

Attention wars and predicting our preferences

Companies compete to capture and hold our attention online – streaks, likes and bottomless scrolls are designed to remove the breaks that might otherwise prompt a natural end to the task and our attention to shift elsewhere. Coupled with huge volumes of data about how we behave and the choices we make, online environments are primed to predict our impulsive, immediate (‘first-order’) preferences and make it as easy as possible to act on them. We can shop and gamble at 3am or watch an entire series of House of Cards without more than a single click.

What if companies instead made it easier for people to exercise more control, or prompted them to make active choices?”

But is this really what we’d choose to do if we had time to reflect, separate from the immediate temptation?

What if companies instead made it easier for us to exercise more control, or prompted us to make active choices and customise our online experiences in line with our reflective ‘second-order’ preferences? That could mean making it easier to self exclude from certain online activities at certain times – like blocking shopping or gambling sites after midnight. Or new defaults that give consumers more control over how they use their phone and other devices, such as bundling notifications to minimise distractions and disruptions.

Giving consumers more control over their data

Inattention and information overload mean that the vast majority of consumers neither engage with, nor understand the long and complex terms and conditions and data privacy policies that set the terms on which we engage with companies and others online, and the data we share. In some ways, that is unsurprising – Paypal’s Terms & Conditions are longer than Shakespeare’s Hamlet – but it leaves consumers with a poor understanding of the true value exchange they are making with online companies.

There are many opportunities to improve how and when this information is presented to consumers. For example, in a recent online experiment, we found that simply telling people how long it would take to read a data privacy notice more than doubled engagement.

Smarter, more timely disclosures will take us so far, but a more promising approach is fostering the development intermediaries that can sift through large volumes of complex information on behalf of consumers. Allowing people to understand, for example, what data they have shared with companies and restricting the use of it should they wish.

Echo chambers, discrimination and incivility

While much of our paper focuses on online markets, it is important to recognise that there is more to markets than contracts and transactions. Markets are entwined with ‘moral sentiments’, social networks and a myriad of habits and customs that shape our lives and societies.

The design of online platforms and the way we interact with each other on them can reinforce echo chambers as well as propagate and potentially extend the exclusion of groups or individuals – Airbnb guests with distinctively African-American names are 16 per cent less likely to be accepted for bookings than guests with distinctively White names. The ‘disinhibition’ we experience online can also licence negative, even hateful, behaviour and exchanges.

We think platforms can and should do more to encourage civility and positive interactions. For example, by testing new prompts and defaults to delay potentially harmful or offensive posts for a short time to enable users to reflect and change their minds, or nudging users to consider the likely impact of harmful content.

We also recommend new governance mechanisms for platforms that combine expert opinion with the collective user voice to allow communities of users to shape the character and rules of the platforms they choose to spend their time on.

Download the report for our full set of recommendations

This paper brings together a number of areas that we have, or are working on, together with colleagues in other parts of government and the world. These range from how to better protect vulnerable consumers; through to how regulators can help foster markets that enable the best firms and products to thrive.

If there is a central, bigger question, it is this: how can we nudge online markets for good – including how they in turn nudge us? This is about as important a challenge as we face in society today. How we respond to, and shape, the evolving character of online markets and environments is important not just because it is pivotal to our economies, but because it is society and the human character itself that we are shaping.