Trump used dark patterns to trick supporters into donating millions more than intended


When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he kept asking his supporters for money. The emails kept coming in. But by the end of his four years in office, according to a new report The New York Times, they started to look an awful lot like a scam.

By June 2020, the Trump campaign had begun to use dark patterns, computer interfaces designed to trick users, to automatically sign up campaign contributors to donate much more money than they intended – recurring monthly donations, recurring weekly donations, even a one-time surprise “Money Bomb” – by prior check the checkboxes for each option, the fine print buried under paragraphs of bold text, forcing supporters to go through everything and opt out if they wanted to make a simple donation.

Here’s how bad it got from October, according to the NYT:

A Kansas City supporter who donated $ 500 saw his account bring in $ 3,000 that month. Another realized their $ 990 donation had gone to $ 8,000. Banks and a major credit card company said it NOW that processing fraud claims for WinRed, the conservative fundraising site that processes these payments, was starting to become a significant percentage of their day-to-day workload. A Trump spokesman admitted that at least $ 19.7 million in transactions had been disputed. And those belong only to people who took the trouble to dispute the charges.

There is much more to it the full story, like how WinRed put $ 5 million in payment processing fees into the pockets of those asking for refunds, but the good news is that maybe, just maybe, people are finally waking up to the dangers of dark patterns.

California passed a major privacy law last month banning dark patterns. Washington State is also trying one. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) plan to reintroduce the DETOUR Act at the next Congressional session, according to our sister site Recoding – and Recoding spoke to Acting FTC Chairman Rebecca Slaughter about her plans to tackle dark patterns as well.

Meanwhile, you will find dark patterns wherever you look on the Internet, perhaps nowhere more prominent than the privacy warnings you find today on any website that tries to warn you about the cookies they collect, in order to comply with EU privacy laws. In far too many cases, there’s no obvious way to opt out of any data collection – instead, there’s a nice crisp button you can press to just enter your data and move on.

UX designer and consultant Harry Brignull coined the term “dark patterns” in 2010. Here is the guest post he wrote for us in 2013. And if you want to laugh and cry at the same time, I highly recommend playing the free, short online game User Inyerface, a masterclass in gruesome UI design.