Robert W. Gehl

Robert W. Gehl is F. Jay Taylor Endowed Research Chair of Communication at Louisiana Tech University and the author of Weaving the Dark Web (MIT Press).

  • Social Engineering

    Social Engineering

    How Crowdmasters, Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls Created a New Form of Manipulative Communication

    Robert W. Gehl and Sean T Lawson

    Manipulative communication—from early twentieth-century propaganda to today's online con artistry—examined through the lens of social engineering.

    The United States is awash in manipulated information about everything from election results to the effectiveness of medical treatments. Corporate social media is an especially good channel for manipulative communication, with Facebook a particularly willing vehicle for it. In Social Engineering, Robert Gehl and Sean Lawson show that online misinformation has its roots in earlier techniques: mass social engineering of the early twentieth century and interpersonal hacker social engineering of the 1970s, converging today into what they call “masspersonal social engineering.” As Gehl and Lawson trace contemporary manipulative communication back to earlier forms of social engineering, possibilities for amelioration become clearer.

    The authors show how specific manipulative communication practices are a mixture of information gathering, deception, and truth-indifferent statements, all with the instrumental goal of getting people to take actions the social engineer wants them to. Yet the term “fake news,” they claim, reduces everything to a true/false binary that fails to encompass the complexity of manipulative communication or to map onto many of its practices. They pay special attention to concepts and terms used by hacker social engineers, including the hacker concept of “bullshitting,” which the authors describe as a truth-indifferent mix of deception, accuracy, and sociability. They conclude with recommendations for how society can undermine masspersonal social engineering and move toward healthier democratic deliberation.

    • Paperback $28.00
  • Weaving the Dark Web

    Weaving the Dark Web

    Legitimacy on Freenet, Tor, and I2P

    Robert W. Gehl

    An exploration of the Dark Web—websites accessible only with special routing software—that examines the history of three anonymizing networks, Freenet, Tor, and I2P.

    The term “Dark Web” conjures up drug markets, unregulated gun sales, stolen credit cards. But, as Robert Gehl points out in Weaving the Dark Web, for each of these illegitimate uses, there are other, legitimate ones: the New York Times's anonymous whistleblowing system, for example, and the use of encryption by political dissidents. Defining the Dark Web straightforwardly as websites that can be accessed only with special routing software, and noting the frequent use of “legitimate” and its variations by users, journalists, and law enforcement to describe Dark Web practices (judging them “legit” or “sh!t”), Gehl uses the concept of legitimacy as a window into the Dark Web. He does so by examining the history of three Dark Web systems: Freenet, Tor, and I2P. Gehl presents three distinct meanings of legitimate: legitimate force, or the state's claim to a monopoly on violence; organizational propriety; and authenticity. He explores how Freenet, Tor, and I2P grappled with these different meanings, and then discusses each form of legitimacy in detail by examining Dark Web markets, search engines, and social networking sites. Finally, taking a broader view of the Dark Web, Gehl argues for the value of anonymous political speech in a time of ubiquitous surveillance. If we shut down the Dark Web, he argues, we lose a valuable channel for dissent.

    • Hardcover $30.00