Whether it’s Cambridge Analytica’s targeted election campaigns, Twitter bots pushing fake news, Facebook facilitating genocide in Myanmar, or ads for the latest cryptocurrency scam, there’s little doubt that social media is being used to influence user behayavior IRL—but is everyone equally susceptible to these tactics?
This is the question at the heart of a paper published last week in PLOS One, which details how its authors created a test to measure how susceptible a person is to persuasion in the context of online scams. The researchers susceptibility to persuasion as someone being “influenced by the plausibility of the story of which they are persuaded.”
“A scam is in many ways similar to a marketing offer although the end result of a scam is illegal or exploitative,” the authors wrote in the paper. “While there is a commonly held belief that an individual can either be a victim of a scam or not, there is a growing amount of evidence that this is perhaps too simplistic.”
The Susceptibility to Persuasion scale (STP-II) was developed by researchers at Cambridge University and the University of Helsinki and administered to nearly 1,000 Mechanical Turk workers in 2013 and 2014. The STP-II is an amalgam of 10 other well-established scales for evaluating different factors that play into whether or not someone is persuaded to do something. For example, rubrics that measure an individual’s attitude toward advertising, desire to be unique, ability to exercise self-control or gauge future consequences were all incorporated into the STP-II.
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Each of these factors influences susceptibility to scams in different ways and at different times in the scamming process. According to the authors, scams can be broken down into a generalized, three step process: The victim must first consider the scam plausible, then interact with the scammer, and ultimately, lose something of value to the scammer.
The actual test—which anyone can take—consisted of 54 statements that are answered on a seven-point scale ranging from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree.’ The test included statements such as “advertising results in better products for the public” and “If it were possible to visit another planet or the moon for free, I would be among the first to sign up.”
If you take the test, you’re shown how you stack up to results from the Mechanical Turks in 10 broad categories (‘Ability to Premeditate,’ ‘Consistency,’ ‘Self-Control,’ etc.) that are meant to give a rough idea of how these categories influence your susceptibility to persuasion. The second part of the test presents a range of possible scams (such as a free antivirus scan or a pyramid scheme) and asks the user to respond to whether they find the scams plausible or not.
According to the researchers’ results, their test subjects found online accommodation scams (where an apartment’s rent is far below normal, for example) to be the most plausible while advanced fee frauds (where you receive an email that says you will receive millions of dollars from some dead relative if you just send the processing fee first) were generally considered the least plausible. In terms of descriptive categories, the researchers respondents demonstrated a high need for similarity to others and a general aversion to risk when it comes to questions of finance or ethics.
The researchers recognize that this rubric will not guarantee that you will or won’t fall for a scam, but argue that the STP-II “plays a modest but vital part in our understanding of behavior modification techniques, regardless of context.”
“Everybody is susceptible to something,” David Modic, a researcher at Cambridge University and the lead author of the paper, told me in an email. “It is merely a question of degree. Regardless of whether it is Cambridge Analytica or someone else, there will always be people using persuasive techniques on- or offline.”
In the era of fake news and multimillion dollar cryptocurrency scams, we could all probably benefit from a little insight into the ways we allow ourselves to be influenced.
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