Is it ethically permitted to manipulate the public? Are we allowed to subtly influence them so that the majority of people develop the attitudes and beliefs we want them to have? The question is often made more complicated than it needs to be by our tendency to focus on cases of mass manipulation used for evil ends, and from them drawing the conclusion that all manipulation is bad. That is much like focusing on car accidents and coming to the conclusion that driving is bad. To reason in such a way is too erroneously reach the conclusion that driving is intrinsically bad because it can be used in a way we would disapprove of. To properly consider the issue of mass manipulation we must address these concerns separately. Is it intrinsically bad regardless of its consequences? And can it be reliably used to achieve good results?
If someone was to argue that mass manipulation is intrinsically bad it would have to be because takes away the freedom of people to have attitudes and beliefs independently of outside influences. In one sense it is hard to argue against this claim from first principles, because whether such freedom is good tends to be an assumption, or at least close to one. Fortunately there is a way around pondering that question; it is easy to show that regardless of whether we are being manipulated or not people have the same amount of such freedom, because the people who can be manipulated never had that freedom to begin with. To demonstrate why this is the case I must use an analogy. People are like a flock of birds, a flock not in physical space, but in the space of ideas. People naturally imitate other people, and so tend to have the same attitudes and the same beliefs. Of course not everyone is part of one flock, some are naturally independent and ignore the flock to a great degree, and depending on how you look at it there may very well be more than one flock (people are most likely to be influenced those that they are already similar to, thus allowing distinct groups to exist). The details are largely irrelevant. Mass manipulation works by using this flocking behavior to the manipulator’s advantage. People instinctively try to stick to the flock, so manipulators try to convince people that certain attitudes or beliefs are in the majority. And so, wishing to stick close to the flock, people begin to pick up those attitudes and beliefs until they really are the majority. The flock not equally sensitive to all of its members at all times; depending on the current state of the flock a change in some members may result in a large influence on the flock as a whole. The manipulator thus works by identifying these key members and influencing them, which in turn influences everyone. And by now I hope it is relatively obvious why no one is really “free” from manipulation, even in the absence of manipulator. Even if someone isn’t trying to control the flock it will still be influenced more by some members than by others. In the absence of external guidance they will tend to change their “trajectory” in the “space of ideas” in essentially a random fashion. This does not result in the members of the flock being free of external influences when they choose their attitudes and beliefs. Rather, their attitudes and beliefs are as subject to the flock as ever, only now the flock as a whole is guided essentially randomly instead of purposefully (subject to emergent manipulation, to coin a phrase). And I can’t see any intrinsic advantage in that.
So mass manipulation is obviously not intrinsically undesirable. Which brings us to our second question: can mass manipulation be used reliably to achieve good results? The answer would seem to depend only on whether the manipulator is able to do a better job then the essentially random influences that would govern the behavior of the flock in their absence. Let us give the flock in its natural state the best possible advantage, and assume that the random influences (the emergent manipulation) reflects the average intellectual capacity of the members (although in reality it is probably worse than that; the emergent manipulation tends to reflect the intellectual capacity of the most well-connected members of the flock). This means that the manipulator can achieve better results assuming they are in a position to make a better decision than the average person. And thus that when it comes to manipulating the flock in large ways they probably do worse, as the individual is unable to take everything into account, while the average person, reflecting all the members of the flock, is influenced by everything, from foreign politics to the current price of eggs (the same reason that even a person intelligently trying to set prices does worse than the free market). But the manipulator probably can do better than the average person when it comes to specific issues. A professional is much better at making judgments about, for example, how many nuclear power plants we should have in proportion to solar wind and hydroelectric sources than the average person is (because of their irrational fear of nuclear power). Thus a manipulator who was a professional, or listened to professional advice, could conceivably direct the flock in a better direction, as long as they restricted their manipulation to a single issue (rather than trying to affect people’s opinions on a wide range of topics).
Thus I am inclined to give mass manipulation, used wisely, the thumbs up. Of course that doesn’t say whether people who are currently engaged in mass manipulation are using it wisely. I suspect that the people inclined to try to manipulate the public aren’t restricting their influence to just a few issues, and thus aren’t using it wisely. But then we should condemn them for using their power to manipulate us poorly, not just because they were manipulating us, as we would condemn a driver who causes an accident for driving poorly, not just because they were driving.