There were lots of ways to get Shanghaied in America's old west. Trap-doors. Druggings. Seduction. You might be having a drink in a local saloon one minute and wake up on a ship bound for China with an awful decision to make the next: sail east as a conscript or walk the plank into the great blue ocean. Kidnappers known as "crimps" flourished on the west coast of the United States. San Francisco was particularly ill-reputed as ground zero for this nefarious practice during the Gold Rush of the 1800s. According to Wikipedia, crimps prospered by taking advantage of the laws and economic conditions of the time.

This article is the first of a series devoted to looking at all the different ways that internet activism can be Shanghaied by individuals and organizations employing what the User Experience Design world calls "Dark Patterns" -- covert techniques that subvert a user's intentions with the purpose of funneling them into unintended activities.


A classic Dark Pattern is probably delivered to your inbox every day in the form of email spam. How do spammers get your email address? You might think spammers get your personal contact info through illicit means such as theft (hacking) or coercion (phishing). But more commonly, your contact data (not just your email address -- perhaps data collected about your personal interests) is considered property. Like property, it is bought and sold among and between the companies and organizations with whom you transact constantly on the web. Most often, when a company or organization goes bankrupt or is acquired by another company or organization, the data they collected about you -- which is considered an asset -- goes to the acquirer or is sold off to the highest bidder during a liquidation event (Radio Shack's bankruptcy illustrated this perfectly). Another frequent occurrence is the licensing of this data to third parties, meaning Party B can come along and purchase personal data collected by Party A for a price, for a limited time. Often this information can be purchased and analyzed in aggregate to study large groups of people and their behaviors for marketing purposes (a common application for what we call Big Data).

In the brave new world known as "The Surveillance Economy", buying and selling user data has simply become business-as-usual. Many of the websites and apps you use on a regular basis are valued by how much of your personal data they are able to collect and sell. The newest old saying goes, "If you can't tell what the company is selling, maybe what they are selling is you." Think about the services you use every day for free on the internet or your phone.

Activism on the internet has a wide berth. It may consist of writing about a topic or cause but most often it is as simple as the act of signing an online petition. If you're reading this, then chances are you have signed one yourself. You may have signed with your name and email address; you may have even handed over your phone number, physical mailing address or demographic information such as your age or political affiliations as well. You might not usually be so liberal in sharing these personal details but you figure it's all for the cause, so why not?

This is the part where you fall through the floor.

When your email and signature is collected through some "free" petition websites, or you "Like" something on Facebook, or you purchase just about anything online, the information you share can be bundled up into a personal profile full of data collected about you that can be used to influence your behavior later on through advertising (or other more covert means -- we'll get into this in another post).

This practice is particularly problematic when it comes to political campaigns. Lately, a lot of attention has been focused on campaign finance -- we are starting to look more closely at who is giving money (billionaires) and who is taking money (politicians) to run political campaigns in our “democracy”. But not much attention has been paid yet to WHAT this campaign money is actually spent on.

More and more frequently, these campaign dollars are used to purchase information about voters so that it can be repurposed for both overt and more subtle forms of political advertising. A feel-good deed such as signing an internet petition on a website that doesn't respect your privacy can now be leveraged by the moneyed class of advertisers to "microtarget" you and your peers as voters. Your simplest act of online activism has just been Shanghaied, and so has democracy.

In the next post, we'll deconstruct the mechanics of ad microtargetting and look at some of the most successful techniques that have been used to influence the public as we arrive at the intersection of Big Data and Elections.

Recommended Reading:

"After Lawsuit Settlement, LinkedIn's Dishonest Design Is Now A $13 Million Problem" []

Lauren Garcia is a software developer in the San Francisco Bay Area.