If we consider the claim that it would be wrong for Facebook to partake in social engineering to influence election outcomes, we may ask, to what extent are people already swayed by this or that social force, influencing how they vote?

What might be an insightful ethical analysis of this? For example: is it really ethically superior that say, people are just as “manipulated” by a slurry of influences in daily life, but that there is no single agent intentionally manipulating them? Is intention what makes it unethical?

Or, if we admit that even if Facebook does not try to influence how people vote (based on analytics on their data, based on what they show in content feeds), those kinds of influences are ultimately unavoidable in the world, and it would require a much deeper analysis of what it would mean for a person to vote “without being manipulated”, at all? Like, some highly systematic way of presenting information in some kind of sealed environment in some “neutral” way.


In the face of contradiction, one sometimes chooses to discard an assumption. If no explicit and consistent distinction between how Facebook/TikTok might “interfere” with an election vs. what everyone else already does to try to “influence” an election can be given, what of the suggestion that society embrace social media interference as a “social prophylactic”: a negative stimulus in concentrated form, meant to train people to handle that category of phenomena better overall?

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    The concern is that Facebook is a single entity with a potentially extremely large influence on the outcome of the election, both because of its large membership and because of the data analytics it has on everyone and ability to control what they see in their feed on an individual level. It's justifiably worrying if a huge corporate entity might wield the unchecked power to decide national elections. It's not that all political manipulation is necessarily a problem, just that if one entity acquires too much power, it might be.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 14 at 6:04
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    lol... I am trying to imagine all politicians only being truthful, and pragmatic when addressing the public leading up to elections... and not attempt to manipulate them with false promises and claims... its not easy. Commented Mar 14 at 7:23
  • When you ask about whether "it would be wrong for Facebook to ...", do you mean Facebook the company? Or do you mean Facebook, the utility that the company allows its users to use? (Or something else?) Commented Mar 15 at 1:08
  • @DanielAsimov, Facebook is not a (public) utility - it is not regulated (hopefully yet).
    – Trang Oul
    Commented Mar 15 at 13:06
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    This is clearly a question about politics, not a question about philosophy. In practice, nobody who makes an argument about an election having been "manipulated" or not, has in mind any kind of idealized theoretical standards. They are just trying to call foul on the other side's campaigning, or defend their own side's. Commented Mar 15 at 14:01

7 Answers 7


What is "manipulation"?

"Manipulation" is defined roughly as intentionally and deceptively trying to affect someone's thoughts or actions.

So you aren't "being manipulated" by just interacting with things in everyday life, and having those affect you without anyone's intent.

Even specifically trying to convince someone of something is not "manipulation" if it's done in a transparent way, e.g. someone directly telling you the pros of voting for some candidate, or the cons of voting for a different one, to convince you that voting for one candidate is better than voting for another one.

"Manipulation" is trying to convince someone using underhanded tactics that they don't know are being used (or possibly just to appeal to some cognitive biases or emotions, which could still affect you even if you are aware of it - there's another discussion to be had about whether this would still constitute "manipulation").

An unmanipulated election?

So an election would be "unmanipulated" if there aren't any such intentional and deceptive influences.

It's probably impossible to make sure an election is entirely unmanipulated, but preventing manipulation by the 3rd most-visited website in the world (and who also owns 2 other websites in the top 10) would be a far bigger concern than your uncle Steve trying to manipulate your mom into voting for some candidate, or whatever.

Semantics and whether manipulation is reasonable

In case someone wants to argue that "manipulation" is defined differently, the point is not about the meaning of that exact sequence of characters, but rather the issue is about the specific actions involved.

Whether you'd call that "manipulation" or not, intentionally and deceptively trying to affect someone's thoughts or actions is (generally) bad, because you aren't letting people come to their own conclusions about what's true or what's best. You may agree with one conclusion someone is manipulated into, but you won't agree with all of them.

Being manipulated is an unreliable method for determining truth or acting morally, since you're merely subject to the whims of others, and it's usually the least moral people who use such tactics, and they usually have intentions other than trying to get you to believe what's true or to do what's right.

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    "3rd most visited site" The elephant in the room is not the ranking column but the last
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 14 at 5:50
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    I don't believe that "deceptively" is a necessary part of how "manipulation" is defined. Rather, it means to contrive to influence someone or something for one's own benefit. Commented Mar 15 at 1:11
  • @DanielAsimov it might depend on your definition of lying. For some people, not saying something that would affect an outcome is lying. So perhaps not including information is manipulation? If I'm influencing a thinker (as opposed to a rock or something), then what I say and don't say is material to how I affected that person, and there are rules of fairness for that. For me, manipulation and lying are basically the same thing. The only thing that isn't is to objectively disclose all the facts. But where's the fun in that?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 15 at 10:27
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    @DanielAsimov Doesn't the last section address that? The point isn't the definition of the specific word "manipulation", but the details of the action that the OP and NotThatGuy are using the word "manipulation" to describe, and it's pretty clear from the full text of the question and answer that they're both using it to mean the same thing. You can say they're both using it wrong, but so long as they're both using it in the same "wrong" way, that doesn't matter.
    – Idran
    Commented Mar 15 at 14:05

I agree with NotThatGuy's assertions, but I suggest that manipulation is inherent in elections- the entire point of them is to influence people to vote in a way that suits the parties involved, their members and the people who fund them, with minimal regard for objectivity or truth. The manipulation is not limited to direct interactions with voters- you need also to consider the selection of candidates by political parties, the personal motivations of candidates, the factors that influence the wording of manifestos, the funding of political campaigns, the way that political issues are selectively represented by the media, the influence of lobby groups and so on. Modern societies are hugely and systematically manipulative, with all kinds of vested interests aiming to influence public attitudes and policy making.

An unmanipulated election is an unattainable fantasy. To get close to it you would have to ban lobbying, ban any impartial media commentary on social issues, ban political funding, introduce a legally binding duty of candour on politicians and government officials, ban any involvement by any politician in any activity in which they have a conflict of interest, ban politicians from gaining employment or funding of any sort from any person or organisation that had benefitted from the politician's influence, subject all manifestos and other political publications to an independent editorial process that ensured they were objective, truthful and impartial, and so on and so on. When all that happens, I will be in the park flying my pigs.

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    You are classifying all persuasion as manipulation. It's like calling all killing murder. Murder is wrongful killing. Manipulation is persuasion by unfair means. If you are saying that all politics is crooked, that's your opinion, but it seems a bit pointless. How else should we settle our disagreements about politics? Persuasion is better than fighting in the streets. Mind you, I'm not saying that everything that is accepted at election time is fair persuasion. It's just accepted, which at least means that the result will be accepted by all sides.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Mar 14 at 8:37
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    Pretty much every ideal could be seen as an "unattainable fantasy", but that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't try to strive towards it. Full gender equality may have seemed like an "unattainable fantasy" 200 years ago (and there may be some biological* differences that can't be equalised), but if we didn't strive towards that, women still wouldn't have the right to vote.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 14 at 11:53
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    "Ban lobbying" - you'd probably not ban lobbying itself, but rather the bribery and such that tends to go with it. Or, the more effective approach would likely be to change how the government works, to negate the incentive of politicians to do what influential people want to get donations and to not lose votes. "Ban any impartial media" - free media is important to democracy (as long as they don't explicitly lie), but you could fix the negative impact of manipulation there by teaching critical thinking in school. For the other things, there are probably better solutions than what we have.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 14 at 11:54
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    @NotThatGuy agreed! My recipe was written off the cuff, so I'm sure there are better alternatives. My overall point is that politics is inherently susceptible to all kinds of dishonesty, insincerity, hypocrisy etc. I can no longer bear to see politicians on TV because I think they are all lying ****s. Commented Mar 14 at 13:07
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    "I can no longer bear to see politicians on TV because I think they are all lying ****s". People believing that is one of the strategies of authoritarians seeking to overthrow free societies. I don't know what country you watch TV in, but it's worth thinking about who this helps.
    – JonathanZ
    Commented Mar 14 at 22:25

Elections are competitive. They need to be controlled by "fair play" - a set of rules and practices. They need to result in an acceptable representation of the opinions of the voters and acceptable to the losing side.

But that means that there is an advantage to be gained by subverting, if not actually breaking, the rules and not observing the practices.

Voters will be subject to all sorts of influences, and people with an interest in the outcome will try to influence voters in ways that suit them. There's nothing wrong with that. Everybody has a right to present their case as persuasively as they can.

Manipulation is influencing voters in an unfair way, without regard to what is in their interest.

An election without people trying to influence voters would be pretty much pointless, as well as completely impracticable. The issue is what is fair and what is not. The problem is that it is very hard to find consensus about this.

The "Facebook" problem is somewhat different. Some people and groups are bound to have a louder voice than others or are more influential even if they do not seek to persuade by unfair means. That gives them an advantage at election time, but it is very hard to see how that can be prevented. Perhaps the only way is to seek to persuade them not to be unfair (e.g. by not actually lying).

So the idea that an election can be unmanipulated depends on the possibility of winning and losing sides agreeing on what is fair and what is not in presenting one's case to the voters. Very difficult, if not impossible.


The line between persuasion and manipulation is thin and favors free speech. It would be illegal for the government to restrict Facebook users from expressing their political opinions regardless of accuracy or intent.

Persuasion and manipulation are a part of capitalism. The use of advertising to persuade and manipulate consumers into buying a certain product is part of life. Capitalism, however, has responded through a product return policy that allows a customer to return a product if they are not satisfied. This gives manufacturers some creative liberties when it comes to advertising but there are laws in place to prevent outright fraud.

Political elections deviate from the principles of capitalism:

  1. The losing voters are stuck with a product they don't want. They have to wait four years before they have a chance for a product that suits their needs. Their only recourse is to claim the election is rigged and constantly hunt for impeachable acts during their tenure.
  2. There are only two manufacturers of product. In fact, every four years we allow a potential monopoly as an election result where one manufacturer rules. In capitalism, anti-trust laws, would have broken up both manufacturers to create a fair, competitive market.

Capitalism places the burden of product research on the buyer: Let the buyer beware.

The same is true for elections. The real problem is that hard-working Americans with families do not have the time to fully research every topic. This benefits the producers of misinformation who provide an overwhelming amount of crap that needs to be sorted through.


If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal -- Emma Goldman

If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it. -- Mark Twain

Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth. -- Lucy Parsons

As last time I checked voting in the west was still allowed, it is fair to assume that the machine that is doing the manipulation is well oiled and working as intended. And despite the initial quotes I think we still should vote. Once in a while there are parties and candidates which could make a difference. And if you see how the system reacts to those threats it is certainly the best way to expose the system.

For sure, those that are currently hold the political and economic power have a massive interest that things stay that way. They also have the means to influence our voting and many levels. It would be crazy to assume that they do not use this power. It is not hard to see a lot of ways this is happening. It does not matter much if this manipulation is done "intentionally" or if those in power believe in the ideology they are spreading. Of course when you are filthy rich you still want some self esteem and you tell yourself that you "earned" your wealth through "hard work", ..

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. -- Marx, The German Ideology

If you look at it like this: the manipulation goes rather deep: It runs through all of society and culture. So we can never have elections without manipulations. Still it is something to strive for. See below some ideas that would help. What we would ideally want are voters who are well informed and are aware of what the implications of their vote for one candidate or one party or another bring. They would be informed what helps and what hurts their own economic interests and they would be aware of the interests of the political actors. They would have an understanding of they ways that ideology is produced and transported and they would even be aware of their own role in this, ...

Now that is a high bar. But where to start.

  • Public funding of elections and political parties. So that politics is not directly bought by the rich.
  • Limiting the concentration of media conglomerates. Limit campaign spending. Limit advertising.
  • Public funding of diverse, non-profit media
  • In education: Teach critical thinking and critical theory.
  • Transparency, Transparency, Transparency. Not only in politics and government but also demand transparency of big business.

Now of course this all is a "chicken and egg" type problem: In order to get all these you need the political power to implement it. And it should not come as a surprise that we are moving into the opposite direction. See the propaganda against "critical theory".

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    I remember being taught critical thinking as a child in school. It worked! I'm pretty much critical of everything now. The political choices available to us are so polarized and blatant as to be either obvious, or perhaps useless. But, there is no alternative but to vote.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 14 at 21:07
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    right. and i never suggested not to vote. (i mentioned it even in the answer). the point for starting with these quotes is to indicate that "unmanipulated" would mean much more then some superficial changes in the mechanics of elections..
    – mond
    Commented Mar 15 at 7:50
  • We would need some changes in the mechanics of people and society.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 15 at 9:57

Political elections are being held by a power deciding for that election the conditions that must be the case for the results to be acceptable by it. If anything happens that violates the rules set forth by the election-holding organization, elections must be deemed invalid and must be repeated.

So philosophically there is no objective standard of what an election holding body must require in order for an election result to be acceptable, this is different by country and organization. Various political schools of thought have different opinions about it, clearly some schools of thought regard it viable for current governments to use many oppressive means to stay in power.

Manipulation of the voters is typically not a problem as it uses methods considered fair, transparent and available in the same degree to all stakeholders. Saying "Vote for me" is a form of manipulation, but it satisfies common requirements of fairness.

The election itself is judged as manipulated if the election-holding body judges that some party used unfair means of influence causing the result to significantly deviate from the result obtained of only allowed methods had been used.

The election-holding organization derives trust and credibility from how it sets and enforces standards for elections. Different governments will be more lenient or more strict on what methods they allow to be used.

As such, what must be considered "manipulated" results also differs between elections.

With all that relativity, nothing seems objectively right or wrong, but that's because the question is not clear enough. Frameworks such as "Democracy" allow for tighter objective rules on what methods must be absent for an election result to be democratic.

  • For large values of 'Democracy'.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 15 at 10:20

Well, for starters, this is the accountant in me, ...
The total number of votes shouldn't exceed the population of the electorate. For example, if there are 900 people in a town, the aggregate ballot count can't be > 900, right? 🤔

Second, if an odd number of votes have been cast, we can't have a draw?

Third, if the voter population is even, the difference in votes if a win is registered, has to be a multiple of 2.

Last but not the least ...
Win votes + Lose votes + Abstainers = Total population of voters

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