From Influence to Manipulation

Legitimacy Cannot Be Dictated, It Should Be Harvested

Influence is fascinating, powerful and intriguing

I always find ‘Influence’ a very powerful fascinating and intriguing word.

Influence is fascinating as it applies to all our social interactions consciously or unconsciously, whether we are influencing others or being influenced by the others. Social interactions may be very regular as our relationship with our neighbors, family members, or colleagues at work or even in one time basis like discussions with people that we meet accidentally or that we do not know personally. Psychologists tend to identify two types of influence based on our needs to be liked and our needs to be right. Informational social influence comes into play when people need to be right. In this case people are uncertain, are intrinsically ambiguous or because there is social disagreement. On the other hand, normative social influence takes place when people tend to need to be liked. In this case, influence tends to make people conform to the positive expectations of others.

Identifying influence and influencers is powerful. In fact, it is very useful to identify people who have the largest influence in your teams, companies, clients base, or the society as a whole. Those influencers are key to help you communication and thrive effectively as they allow you to share information or convince a community about the advantages of your ideas or products. Several research works related to identifying influencers has been developed since years based on network modeling, but the most successful and compelling findings were what Abhijit Banerjee (MIT) had called diffusion centrality, which characterizes a node’s influence in spreading information ina given network through a thorough model.

Influence is intriguing when you see how it propagates and disseminate in a society, a crowd, or a team. It is in fact interesting to see how ideas flow from person to person through influence and how this flow of ideas ends up shaping the norms, productivity and creativity of our societies, companies, and governments. There is a particular research framework initiated by Alex Pentland (MIT), and called the SocialPhysics, which tries to identify statistical regularities related to human movement and communication, as well as interesting correlations with economic indicators. Progress in developing this represents steps toward what David Marr called a computational theory of behavior: a mathematical explanation of why society reacts as it does and how reactions may solve human problems.

Positive influence & negative manipulation


Being powerful, fascinating and intriguing, we all tend to think about influence as a positive word. We all think about it from an identification perspective, which is when we are influenced by someone who is liked and respected, such as a famous celebrity ora political person. But this is not the way things happen. Influence is frequently used in a negative manner while we think it is positive. We tend to overuse the word ‘influence’ in situations where it is more appropriate to talk about manipulation. We all went into experiences during which we were too naïve and were manipulated while we were thinking that we were influenced through an argument, an experience, or a recommendation of a person that we trust. In such situations, we generally do not have enough information in the right time to know the agenda of a third parties and their hidden intentions. The manipulation can be also seen at a society level when we start talking aboutCrowd Manipulation either from a political or business perspectives.


My objective is not to go into the details of Manipulation or Crowd Manipulation fromBusiness or Political perspectives. I am rather willing to make the point about the misuse of such a fascinating word and terminology of Influence to advocate hidden agenda of negative manipulation. We need to call a spade a spade.


Negative and positive use of hidden intentions



Manipulation does not to be taken and understood in a negative way all the time. In fact, and from a business perspective, we can and we should all work with sales, marketing, public relation skills and techniques to better convince our prospects and clients to buy our products. Those skills use some kind of ‘planned and positive manipulation’ in the sense of negotiating and convincing the others. When a business is running a demo with selected well known actors or sportsmen, when it is doing a mass advertising billboard campaign using a football player, or when it is organizing a diner or an event with selected and influential representatives from its clients base, we don’t need to call it ‘influencing’ but rather‘ marketing’ or ‘advertising’.

At the end of the day, assessing whetherInfluence, Manipulation, Marketing, or Advertising are positive or negative depends on the hidden intentions, objectives and convictions of people and organizations using and practicing them. A year from NSA/Snowden revelations, it is shocking to see how real time data mining technologies were used through aso called Squeaky Dolphin Program developed by the US Government CommunicationsHeadquarter (GCHQ) to extract valuable information from meta data generated by the online activity of billions and billions. Officially, the GCHQ was “Not interested in individuals just broad trends” based on a formal statement by theNSA. However, “according to other Snowden documents” obtained by NBC,in 2010, “GCHQ exploited unencrypted data from Twitter to identify specific users around the world and target them with propaganda.”. This isa real life example about negative manipulation and propaganda which do only serve hidden agendas.



  1. thanks, very interesting ! do you think using manipulation to obtain a final ‘good’ result is ethical ? and if we decide to do so, is there a risk for us being altered by the process and later using manipulation for not so good results or simply for the pleasure of doing experiments?


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