Analysis Framework

Psychological Manipulation Tactics

Last Updated: July 8, 2022 (Version 1)

References ↓

Are there persuasive or misleading tactics being used?

What makes a piece of content particularly persuasive or convincing? Generally, it is because of the information being presented. Psychologists have identified a number of manipulative techniques designed to persuade an audience to feel or think a certain way. These techniques are effective because they take advantage of the way humans naturally perceive or react to information. In addition, these techniques are even more worrisome when the information is misleading or false. Recognizing and exposing the presence of these manipulative tactics can be a valuable tool.

The creation of this framework was inspired by research on inoculation theory, a social psychological theory that posits one can be protected from persuasive influence in a similar way that a body is protected from disease [30]. The name comes from a medical analogy: immunity to stronger challenges is achieved through pre-exposure to weaker challenges. In the case of persuasion, the “psychological vaccination” is the education of the common manipulative tactics found in misleading narratives. Once armed with the ability to identify these core tactics, one is poised to develop resistance against a future manipulative “attack.”

The Psychological Manipulation Tactics Framework

ARTT’s Psychological Manipulation Tactics conceptual framework categorizes manipulation tactics for easier identification. While not an exhaustive list of manipulative strategies, the framework focuses on the rhetorical or psychological techniques generally observed in mis/disinformation campaigns and activities, and generally supported by recent research.

This frameworking consists of seven core concepts:

Each concept includes indicators that signal a unique manipulation tactic. Explanation of each concept and indicator can be found below.

Conspiratorial Reasoning
Conspiratorial reasoning is a way of thinking that provides a frame of interpretation for events. Utilizing this type of reasoning can be an effective manipulation tool. Conspiratorial reasoning exploits one’s bias toward making causal connections between unrelated events, and the inclination to attach melodramatic narratives as explanations for those perceived connections [15, 32, 42].
Intentional Trolling
The act of “trolling” is when an online user deliberately “baits” a response by using inflammatory, irrelevant, or otherwise disruptive language. Online trolling has a variety of manifestations that are not always deliberately malign in nature. Intentional trolling, as opposed to other types of humorous or non-intentional trolling, is serious and ideologically motivated. Intentional trolling tactics can be manipulative because they take advantage of emotional reactions, heuristics (mental shortcuts) or identity cues [42].
Impersonation involves emulating the style or behavior of an individual or organization in order to gain access to a trusted community. This tactic takes advantage of the inherent trust individuals already have with a familiar identity, community or source [42].
Manufacturing Doubt
Making sense of scientific information is often complicated for those outside the scientific community. People commonly either utilize simple heuristics (mental shortcuts) or rely on experts to interpret scientific uncertainty or distill other complex information. Malicious actors can take advantage of these tendencies to intentionally distort the public perception of scientific topics [12, 21].
Evoking Emotion
Emotion is a potent force that can influence an opinion or urge people to act. When utilizing content or rhetoric that does not add any informative value, but instead deliberately evokes an emotional reaction, one can exploit the human tendency to think and react with emotion instead of reason [42].
Polarization creates or expands gaps between two groups. Particularly effective at increasing in-group favoritism or discouraging empathy toward out-groups, polarization tactics exploit the tendency for people to self-categorize into groups, and to see the world through binary distinctions (e.g., us and them) [42, 38].
Discrediting is a tactic that focuses on dismantling the public credibility of one’s opponents, rather than addressing any valid claims or accusations that the opponent levies. The act of discrediting exploits how a person’s credibility hinges on trustworthiness and competence [1, 42].


The ARTT team created the Psychological Manipulation Tactics Framework through a literature review in the fields of social and cognitive psychology, communication theory, sociology, and information research. Six concepts of manipulation, identified by Sander van der Linden and Jon Roozenbeek’s research, served as the framework’s foundation: impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling [42]. From there, the team added an additional concept (manufacturing doubt), and amplified each concept with bespoke indicators.

After a review by ARTT project advisors, this framework is being released as an alpha version. The ARTT team has plans to iterate on this version in the next phase of our project. Inspired by the climate misinformation-based FLICC taxonomy [11], a future iteration could include an expansion to topic-specific manipulation techniques. If you have any feedback on this framework, please send an email to artt [dot] hackshackers [dot] com with the subject line “Manipulation Framework.”

We would also like to thank Hansika Kapoor and John Cook for their contributions to the development of this framework.

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