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Who Uses Dark Patterns to Manipulate You?

— April 5, 2021

Ever sign up for a “free trial” and find it difficult to opt out later? Or try closing an ad only to be misdirected to a marketing website? Then you are already familiar with dark patterns.

Using manipulative graphics, deceitful language, and dishonest design to steer people into making “choices” that they wouldn’t normally make, isn’t new. However, more people are starting to notice these tricks as websites and fundraising emails double down on the use of “dark patterns” to ensnare the unwary. The good news is that once you learn to see them, they become a lot easier to avoid.

What are dark patterns?

Have you ever visited a website and been obliged to click through a pop-up ad that tried to obtain your consent to track your internet use and feed you targeted ads based on your browsing history, only instead of being blunt about it, they ask if you want a “better user experience” through “personalization,” which sounds significantly friendlier?

How about ads that you try to close by clicking on the X in the corner, only that button took you to the advertiser’s website instead?

Have you ever felt pressured to make a purchase too quickly because a fake countdown timer implied that waiting too long would cost you more?

Or have you signed up for a “free trial” only to find that opting out before your credit card was charged was nearly impossible?

Have you ever clicked a prominent pop-up consenting to accept tracking cookies because it got in the way of reading the article, instead of clicking through to a menu that allows you to disable them?

If so, you’ve experienced “dark patterns.” The term covers all of these misleading practices, and more. They’ve become so pervasive in recent years that they seem almost normal, but they don’t have to be.

An example of a political donation request with a pre-filled checkbox opting the donor into recurring donations.
Example of a pre-filled checkbox, one of many manipulative dark patterns used to trick people on the internet. Graphic by the author.

Perhaps the most prominent purveyor of dark patterns in recent news was the 2020 Trump campaign. In addition to blasting supporters with as many as 15 emails a day, filled with promises of matched donations on one hand, and anxiety-inducing warnings of the imminent demise of the country on the other. Many small-time donors who responded with what they intended to be one-time gifts later found that the campaign charged them again and again, even causing overdraft fees or frozen accounts. Why? Because WinRed, a donation processing platform for the GOP, with the consent of the Trump campaign, had included a sneaky little pre-checked box indicating that the donor wanted their donation repeated weekly or monthly. Another pre-checked box, which the campaign referred to internally as the “money bomb,” opted donors in for an additional re-up on a suggested day, such as Donald Trump’s birthday.

Supporters like fixed-income retirees, veterans, and people in hospice care fell victim to the recurring donation scheme and the “money bomb,” according to a New York Times piece about the Trump campaign’s pervasive use of dark patterns in their fundraising emails. While WinRed claims that Democrats also ask for recurring donations, the difference between allowing donors to opt in, and opting them in by default, is vast. WinRed and the Trump campaign ended up having to refund $122 million in online donations, over 10% of their total take (and many times the amount that the Biden campaign refunded, often due to people unintentionally surpassing the legal limit). Between the unintentional donation and the eventual refund, the Trump campaign was able to access millions of dollars as an interest-free loan from people who could hardly afford it.

If you think dark patterns sound like another word for “scam,” you’re not alone. Last month, California passed a new Consumer Privacy Act that prohibits the use of dark patterns to fool people into doing what they don’t mean to do. The Act builds upon a 2018 law that is considered to provide California residents with the strongest privacy protections in the country. In addition to halting the kind of underhanded tactics the Trump campaign used to separate supporters from their cash, the law also implements the use of a Privacy Options icon, which will help people opt out of allowing the sale of their personal data. (“Stop the Steal,” indeed.)

It may be tempting to claim “caveat emptor,” and say that people should automatically know to watch for tricky tactics, figuring out how to navigate the danger on their own. Survival of the fittest and sacrifice the weak, right? Perhaps. Do we really want to live in a world where the people in power got there by cheating their most faithful supporters, or does the government have a role in protecting unsuspecting citizens from the worst abuses of the shady operators among us? If you favor fair laws and beneficial order, the answer is abundantly clear.

Related: Consumer Advocates Ask FTC to Investigate Whether It’s Too Difficult to Cancel Amazon Prime Memberships


Dark patterns, the tricks websites use to make you say yes, explained
How Trump Steered Supporters Into Unwitting Donations
California Passes New Regulation Banning ‘Dark Patterns’ Under Landmark Privacy Law

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