The Visual Rhetoric of Dark Patterns

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.—McLuhan (1964, p.8)
Such is the ‘duplicity’ of mêtis which, giving itself out to be other than it is, is like those misleading objects, the powers of deception which Homer refers to as dolos: the Trojan Horse, the bed of love with its magic bonds, the fishing bait are all traps which conceal their inner deceit beneath a reassuring or seductive exterior.—Detienne and Vernant (1978, p.23)

Dark patterns are design patterns used in the production of a range of deceptive interfaces. Like other design patterns, they are abstract representations used to generate specific instances. Dark patterns and the deceptive interfaces they generate present risks to users that range in severity from the merely annoying to the more dangerous kinds that threaten to undermine governments and unravel our social fabric.

Coming out of design discourse, the concept of dark patterns became mainstream in 2016, with articles appearing in various technology-oriented publications like Recode, Smashing, Ars Technica, Techcrunch, The Verge, Gizmodo, and A List Apart, as well as in more traditional news outlets such as The New York Times and Reuters; the U.S. Presidential Election had pushed the topic to prominence. In “The Year Dark Patterns Won” journalist Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan (2016) wrote that, during the election, “dark patterns . . . [were] wielded as weapons against democracy.”

Many in the media charged Google and Facebook with the worst complicity, such as when Campbell-Dollaghan wrote: “Even the details of the interface used by both Facebook and Google mislead users.” She went on to argue how “both companies lent legitimacy to lies through design.”

As a result, eventually the bipartisan DETOUR Act was introduced which would have—according to journalist Catalin Cimpanu (2019)—banned these “large social networking platforms from using ‘dark patterns’ to trick users into giving their consent for data collection operations.” It also would have compelled these companies to create a professional standards body to promulgate a set of best practices for interface design. Had it come about, that would have been ironic; however, the bill ultimately died in Congress.

Dark patterns continued to proliferate and now, according to Alfred Ng and Sam Morris (2021), a new bipartisan group of Senators is trying “to reintroduce the DETOUR Act.” While I’m not opposed to such legislation, I question how effective it would prove. Despite decades trying to prevent online piracy, viruses, malware, and even more obviously criminal activities, they’re all still widespread. In any case, there are significant problems with any legislative approach, not least are questions of definition and enforcement.

Designers and internet activists of various stripes have taken up cause against dark patterns, the most prominent being Harry Brignull, who coined the term ‘dark patterns’ back in 2010 after being mugged in real life. Brignull (2013) originally defined dark patterns as “a user interface carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do” and he published a website devoted to “naming and shaming” those who use them.

Brignull also created the #darkpatterns Twitter hashtag that, after more than a decade now, still sees considerable daily activity. However, despite all this naming and shaming of some of the biggest players, such as Amazon and Apple, #darkpatterns activism doesn’t seem to have stemmed the tide in any meaningful sense.

The moment one succumbs to a deceptive interface is highly instructive: it constitutes an edge case when human interpretation spectacularly fails, when perceptual lacunae of which we’re typically unaware suddenly become our Achilles heel. Consider the deceptive interface in Figure 1. A human hair has been meticulously photoshopped to appear to sit on the user’s screen, prompting them to wipe it off and, in so doing, to activate the link wrapped around the image.

Fake Hair
Figure 1: “Fake Hair.” Posted to Twitter by @blakeir, this deceptive interface consists of a fake hair photoshopped onto a sneaker advertisement so it looks like it sits atop the screen. When the user tries to wipe it away, it triggers the link wrapped around the whole image. It is one of the patterns of disguise.

Any user—no matter how perceptive—might try to brush the hair away and thereby trigger the malicious link, as the machines in the decision loop interpret that action as consent to download the attached malware. This is not communication, but its antithesis—a deliberate miscommunication that exploits not only a blind spot in our ability to correctly interpret visual information but also a weakness in our communication infrastructure which allows one kind of action to be so easily taken for another. An what at first was innocent, now seems sinister, the elaborately constructed sneaker ad just a ruse.

I say this moment is instructive because it has three elements I’d like to make salient. First, it demonstrates, if further demonstration were needed, that the communicative context in which the interaction occurs, i.e., a user interface, is fundamentally different from other contexts, whether written, visual, video, aural, interpersonal, etc. This moment, which could not occur the same way in any other context, illustrates characteristics that distinguish interface communication from other types.

The context in which dark patterns proliferate is that of what can best be called interface communication—the communication one undertakes with others through the act of using an interface. In this context, communication bi-directional. In one direction, each element is communication from a designer intended to explain what different features do, and is intended for the user.

In the other direction, each element, when used, communicates to a computer what the user intends. The interface elements are designed to function in both directions: as signs that indicate what they're to be used for, and as signs of what the user does.

Second, this moment illustrates the kind of rhetorical cunning necessary to devise the ploys, tricks, and traps upon which dark patterns depend and focuses our attention on the creative thinking involved in their design. Even those who find dark patterns to be ethically abhorrent can dispute neither their cunning nor their rhetorical character.

Finally, this moment illustrates the optical component that enables the deception. The hair in this ad must realistically appear to be sitting atop the screen in order to prompt users to brush it away and thereby trigger it. If the curve looked less natural, if the line were thicker, the illusion would vanish, and the trap could readily be avoided.

As the gestalt thinkers were perhaps the first to understand, to interpret a visual figure is already to enter into the realm of speculation where we cannot be certain what means what, where meaning is only ever contingent and we can only proceed by constructing oft-and-hastily revised hypotheses about the workings of the system we’re employing to accomplish our virtual tasks. Deception is not a bug, it’s a feature of interface communication. This is the gap which dark patterns exploit.

And, though we may wish otherwise, this is not restricted dark patterns, as Wayne Booth’s (2004) The Rhetoric of Rhetoric spelled out rather explicitly. In defining rhetoric most broadly to include “the entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another,” (p. xi) Booth outlined a long history of deception in rhetoric dating back to the pre-Socratic tradition and in it he detailed a complex and uncertain relationship between rhetoric and the truth.

In this webtext, I explore these strands: the special nature of interface communication, the rhetorical cunning evident in the construction of deceptive interfaces, and the reliance on a graphical, optical, visual component, on disguises, masks, camouflage, and illusions that allow a lie to masquerade as truth. In the end, I argue that dark patterns and the interfaces they generate can help us understand that the relationship between rhetoric and deception is a reflexive one.

In the act of opening ourselves to the discovery of meaning, we open ourselves to being deceived, and in this (limited) sense, there is no distinction between truth and lie—after all, the lie depends on passing as the truth. This is not in any way to excuse it nor to say there aren’t other ways to distinguish among them (there are ethical differences, for example), but merely to say that we’re always already deceiving ourselves about what our eyes see and our brains know—it’s a necessary precondition of the interpretive act.

In the pages that comprise this webtext, I review the related literature, better define dark patterns, and situate them among other online and visual deceptions so as to better distinguish them from similar but different types of frauds, scams, and equivocations. Using a framework derived from studies of rhetorical cunning and reliant on the understanding of visual perception first described in Gestalt theories of design, I analyze how dark patterns work in general and then use this theory to examine a fairly large number of specific examples in the included gallery pages (which have been organized according to a descriptive taxonomy I pressed into rough service).

What I hope this study of dark patterns can reveal is that, in interfaces at least, truth and deception are two faces of the same coin. Deception runs the length of the communicative process, a substrate beneath everything, and dark patterns tap into this fundamental structure in order to pass as legitimate. One thing this means is they can never be eradicated entirely. Instead, what inures us to them is when we ourselves become better communicators.

When we pay attention to the rhetorical register of various discursive contexts, when we apply rigorous standards of interpretation, we have the opportunity to perceive dark patterns before falling victim to them. We train our eyes and our minds to see through their camouflage, to piece the disguise, and in so doing we expose them, rob them of their masks, and render them powerless. It’s my hope, that in providing a theoretical analysis of dark patterns and how they function, with specific examples, I am giving students and teachers, scholars and designers, the terms and knowledge necessary to defeat them.

In a world in which lies, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and alternative facts proliferate, spread at least in part through interfaces designed according to dark patterns, it behooves those of us who take a critical view of technology, who ourselves teach, study, and practice rhetorical web development, to propose some ways to counter them, and so the final section of this webtext attempts to do just that.