Target Practice

Metaphors of piercing or penetrating barriers reduce communication to a process of domination

Full-text audio version of this essay.

While our vision of computer hacking might still be of hoodie-clad loners in basements furiously typing on glowing keyboards, often the easiest way to gain access to a computer is a decidedly low-tech approach: ask someone for the password. This technique, sometimes referred to as “social engineering,” gains passwords and access to restricted systems through manipulative, interpersonal communication (rather than, say, through vulnerabilities in the code itself). As famed 1990s hacker and accomplished social engineer Kevin Mitnick is fond of saying, in any security system, the “human is the weakest link.”

In the mid-1990s, while journalist Jonathan Littman was doing research for a book about Mitnick, who at that time was on the run from the FBI, he learned that his email account had been hacked. Though Mitnick was ostensibly cooperating with Littman, the journalist still suspected that he or his hacking accomplice Lewis De Payne were behind it. When Littman obliquely confronted De Payne on the phone, his response was unexpected: “Tell me, Jon,” De Payne asked. “Do you feel violated? … Do you feel female?” Later in the conversation he would characterize hacking incidents such as the one Littman experienced as “electronic rape” and “sodomy.”

The history of hacker social engineering is mingled with that of pickup artistry

It’s not uncommon for social engineers to use disturbing metaphors of nonconsensual sexual and violent penetration to describe effective acts of manipulative communication. Nor is it surprising. Penetration metaphors abound in the world of manipulative communication, found in interpersonal manipulation such as hacker social engineering and con artistry as well as manipulative mass media, propaganda, disinformation, and public relations. The field of hacker social engineering has largely been professionalized — there are even college courses one can take to learn it — but the vestiges of the sexual penetration metaphor remain in terms like “pentesting” (penetration testing) and triumphant exclamations of “having one’s way with” a computer after conning someone out of a password. As computer security consultant Chris Hadnagy laments in his 2018 book Social Engineering: The Science of Human Hacking, penetration testers often indulge in “a slew of non-humorous sexual innuendos” and worries it will turn people away from the field. But the bad metaphor remains.

The history of hacker social engineering is mingled with that of another penetration-obsessed field: pickup artistry. In the 1990s, De Payne himself was a pioneer of online pickup-artist culture, founding one of the first discussion forums on the topic, the Usenet newsgroup alt.seduction.fast, and publishing a manual called Sensual Access: The High Tech Guide to Seducing Women Using Your Home Computer. More recently, in the 2010s, the pickup artist Jordan Harbinger became a co-host of Social-Engineer.org’s influential cybersecurity podcast, where his role was to draw the connections between the communicative techniques of pickup artistry and those of hackers.

Predating the social engineers’ sexual metaphor of communication as penetration is a military variation on the metaphor used by early 20th century mass media propagandists who spoke of messages as “bullets” penetrating media systems and minds and “engineering the consent” of the masses. The most famous of these consent engineers was Edward Bernays, who argued that propagandists (or, if you prefer, public relations specialists) could have their ideas become “part and parcel of the people themselves.” He was influenced by George Creel, a World War I–era propagandist who described American propaganda as “paper bullets” and “shrapnel” in a battle for “hearts and minds.”

The “paper bullets” penetration metaphor persists in discussions of state-sponsored disinformation and cyberwar. Today’s anxiety over Russian cyberwar is marked by fears that Russian hackers could penetrate critical infrastructure both within Ukraine and beyond, or how Russian propaganda messages are penetrating into Western social media conversations and mass media, such as Tucker Carlson’s repetition of Russian disinformation about Ukrainian bioweapons. The only logical response seems to be to penetrate back: Western media are reporting about efforts to “pierce” through Russian censorship and propaganda. Russia isn’t the only one doing this, either: during the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, Iran was caught — twice — trying to intimidate Democrats and anti-Trump politicians by “penetrating the minds of American citizens” via social networking accounts and email servers.

Whether the “penetration” is by hackers or propagandists, the metaphor associates masculinity, power, and media technologies, indulging a self-important sense of mastery

In the logics of corporate social media — especially among practitioners of behavioral advertising — are a mixture of hacker social engineering’s interpersonal penetration and propaganda’s mass media penetration. A now infamous example is Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced company at the heart of controversies related to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Brexit referendum. Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix touted the company’s ability to shape elections through its “in-house army” of data scientists armed with an “arsenal of data” that allowed them to “laser in” and deliver messages that go deep into the psyche of their recipients. For Nix, the paper bullets of yesteryear are replaced, it seems, with focused light — perhaps more fitting for an era of fiber-optic networks and screens.

We, of course, use the term “targeted advertising” for such practices, but that is euphemistic. Behind the “targeted” metaphor is something more than mere target acquisition; the goal is to strike the targets and “penetrate.” One of Cambridge Analytica’s more disturbing campaigns was meant to reduce Black voting in swing states, such as Wisconsin, during the U.S. presidential election. The goal was not just to identify the specific population of Black Wisconsinites but to penetrate that population with the message that voting is pointless. Nix also often used the male, sexual conquest metaphor. According to Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie, Nix described his contract negotiations in terms of sexual conquest: iIn the early stages of negotiations, the two sides were “feeling each other up” or “slipping in a finger.” When a deal closed, he’d exclaim, “now we’re fucking!”

Whether the penetration is by hackers or propagandists, the metaphor associates masculinity, knowledge, power, and media technologies to allow those who use it to indulge a self-important sense of mastery. Numerous feminist scholars, including Christina Dunbar-Hester in Hacking Diversity, have critiqued the hypermasculinity of computer hacking. But the metaphor also persists because of the way it frames communication as an invasive threat against which one needs expert support. Contemporary organizations concerned about being hacked can hire “red team” hacker social engineers to conduct corporate security “pentests” and report what vulnerabilities they find. If we’re concerned about bad propaganda — that is, bad guys with paper bullets — we can always demand government and corporate PR professionals to fire back their own. In both cases, penetration thinking invites a communicative arms race.

The penetration model has been dominant for so long that critics have developed an easy label for it, calling it the “hypodermic needle” model: the belief that information can be injected into the minds of recipients without involving any agency or participation on their part. Critics of that model rightly note that reduces a complex human phenomenon — what John Durham Peters calls “the age-old grubby face-to-face work of making lives together in language” — to a matter of conquest. Instead of the communion of communication, we have what James Carey calls the “transmission” view: communication as information penetrating time and space for purposes of control.

Perhaps the clearest condemnation of the communication as penetration metaphor is offered by Christopher Simpson. In Science of Coercion, Simpson shows how after World War II, the academic field of communication was founded almost exclusively in terms of logics of domination and coercion, and how elites could use technology manage social change, extract political concessions, or win purchasing decisions from targeted audiences. To that end of narrowly defining communication as social management, scholars in the field developed means to quantify the “penetration” of ideas into audiences with experimental and quasi-experimental effects research, random sampling, opinion surveys, and quantitative content analysis.

The penetration metaphor becomes self-reinforcing: It becomes the only way to think about how communication works

This logic remains powerful in the field — and in ways of thinking about communication. Quantitative communication scholars enjoy easier access to funding thanks to their perceived prestige as scientists, which in turn enables them to further refine the penetration metaphor in research studies. Communication students are trained in how to get more likes, follows, and retweets for brands or states. Those students get hired by advertising, marketing, public relations, and political communication firms, all of which implicitly rely on the penetrating metaphor, seeking to pierce through media noise and bypass our control over our attention. And for those who are not professional communicators, the use of corporate social media to broadcast expression often replicates the same logics: We want our posts to reach as many people or gain as many likes as possible, proxies for how well our posts have penetrated into the public sphere. Ultimately, the penetration metaphor becomes self-reinforcing: It becomes the only way to think about how communication works.

But there are other ways of communicating. Against the penetration metaphor of communication, other communication scholars have offered alternative framings that emphasize its communal elements rather than its capacity to penetrate. Drawing on a range of thinkers including Raymond Williams, James Carey, Walter Benjamin, and Patricia Hill Collins, Guobin Yang offers the idea of “communication as translation,” which “is premised on the recognition of difference, dialogue, receptivity, mutual change, and self-transformation.” Rather than see interlocutors as invading and penetrating each other’s defenses with precision messaging, we can instead view communication in terms of how we are constantly translating one another, even if we speak the same language. Such a framework emphasizes how communication can open us to listen to people who do not share our backgrounds, most especially people whose voices are not often translated to the mainstream.

Yang’s approach echoes Hill Collins’s call in Black Feminist Thought for dialogue and coalition-building across autonomous groups. Collins uses the concept of a multiplicity of stories to elaborate on this approach, noting how storytellers are “writing one immense story, with different parts of the story coming from a multitude of different perspectives.” In contrast to the penetration metaphor, communication as translation seeks to invert established hierarchies. Rather than elites using the latest technologies to penetrate our minds, translation moves outward from local contingencies in ever-expanding networks. The gathered narratives thus become collectives of particularities — a universalization of multiplicity, as opposed to the elite logic of penetration from on high.

An emerging example of this in practice might be the alternative social media system known as the “Fediverse” – the networked collection of individual servers that run on shared social protocols, enabling small, independently-operated online communities to connect to one another in a noncentralized network. Fediverse servers tend to be topical (e.g., a server focused on sci-fi, a server focused on trans identity, a server focused on socialism), but they connect to one another as members friend and follow one another. In doing so, complex networks of affinity and mutual support emerge. Notably, the fediverse eschews the consciousness-penetrating practice of behavioral advertising just as much as it eschews the centralization found in corporate social media. (It doesn’t rely on crypto either.) The goal of the fediverse is not conquest and domination, but instead a distributed network composed of a large number of small groups.

The penetration metaphor of communication involves predetermined universals — you are a consumer, you are a target, you are a means to an end — being imposed upon the multiplicity of people’s stories. It eradicates difference, reducing the range of the thinkable by burrowing messages into each of us. As such, it will remain dominant — this is a vision that is quite at home both in militarized societies and capitalist ones. But as we wrestle with the problems of manipulative communication in the digital age,  whether it be the interpersonal cons of hacker social engineers or mass mediated manipulation through propaganda, our answer cannot be more of the same. It cannot be more and better penetration. We need to rethink what “communication” means.

This essay was adapted from Social Engineering: How Crowdmasters, Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls Created a New Form of Manipulative Communication, published on March 8, 2022 by MIT Press.

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).

Sean T. Lawson is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Utah, Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare at the Marine Corps University, and author of Cybersecurity Discourse in the United States.