The Dark Pattern of Fake News

It’s almost Halloween, so let’s look at a spooooky side of information architecture!

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What are Dark Patterns?

Dark patterns are subtle tricks built into a website’s IA that make the user do something they normally wouldn’t do. It exploits the user without their knowledge. Basically, companies choose to manipulate UI principles for that sweet, sweet cash (or in this case, that sweet, sweet political victory).

Don’t confuse dark patterns with bad design. Harry Brignull, the founder of DarkPatterns.org, a website dedicated to shaming websites who use dark patterns, calls it evil design.

Evil by Design

Most of us have a dark patterns story. Mine started with a quick online credit check that ended with $160 charge to my bank account for a year’s worth of identity protection I never asked for. Not a great move for a company I’m supposed to trust with my identity, guys!

Here are a few types of dark patterns (as seen on darkpatterns.org):

Bait and Switch: Where you set out to do one thing, but something not so desirable happens instead.

Disguised Ads: Advertisements that look like something else in order to get you to click on them. Just rude.

Forced Continuity: You quietly get charged when your free trial comes to an end, and subsequently have difficulty canceling the subscription once you realize what’s happened (I’m looking at you, Apple Music).

Friend Spam: Possibly the worst for everyone. When you hand over your social media to a company, thinking they’ll use it for good. But they use it for evil, duh.

So how do we get from this side of dark patterns to the darkest pattern of all: fake news?

The Darkest Timeline

You were there. The year America became a dumpster fire. 2016.

As Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan put it in her article The Year Dark Patterns Won, “It was a year defined by the intentional misleading of people by design, from products to democracy itself. [And] while the steady evolution of dark patterns on the internet has been going on for years, something changed in 2016]: We saw them wielded as weapons against democracy.”

It’s looking more likely that Russia influenced our last presidential election. Not by messing with votes or your classic hack-a-thon. But with an evil design concept known as fake news.

Facebook’s information architecture and algorithm selectively serves up news stories (no matter the truth behind them) based on the user’s opinion. This is considered a form confirmation bias. Ian Chan, Director of Engineering at Branch Metrics, says, “The downside of ever improving personalization/ recommendation systems is that they narrow an already self curated perspective. The confirmation bias which these systems benefit from is a dark pattern, restricting one’s ability to organically broaden their horizons.”

These stories are shown on fake news websites, oftentimes mimicking real news websites, making it hard for some to tell the difference if you’re not looking hard enough.

To make matters worse, Russia also purchased ads within the Facebook platform, perpetuating these fake news stories. But they didn’t stop there. The Guardian reports that, “on Facebook alone, Russia-linked imposters had hundreds of millions of interactions with potential voters who believed they were interacting with fellow Americans.”

And finally, to top off this perfect dark pattern shit storm, there’s Donald Trump.

King of the Dark Pattern

Perhaps the biggest perpetuator of fake news: the president himself. He has single-handedly built an alternate reality for his followers, in which he can create his own “truths” and spread them as fact. And everything else is, conveniently, fake news (including CNN, New York Times, you know, legit news outlets).

We were even blessed with a new term by Kellyanne Conway, alternative facts, which is the most insidious of the dark patterns here.

It’s exactly as Kelsey describes in her article: “Most of us would assume a candidate for public office would operate based on some basic ethical standards including not directly lying to the public, the same way most of us would assume a company wouldn’t directly trick us with its UX. Both assumptions turned out to be wrong.”

Less Dark, More Heart

This past election has brought up some dark, dark feelings. But it’s also shown a blinding light on some hidden dark patterns that need to be addressed.

Wrong holiday, but gah, Gremlins are presh.

Our social platforms must be active in reducing the amount of fake news being circulated and shared.

By using information architecture, algorithms, and UI edits, platforms like Facebook can call out fake news stories and prevent them from rising to the top of news feeds.

Twitter can indicate when stories have been validated, and when they haven’t.

Snopes can team up with these platforms to indicate when stories have been proven wrong.

As designers, it’s on us to make the user experience more representative of the world as it truly is, and to use very strong, visually apparent indicators for fake news.