Police and Government are using social media influencer tactics, study says

Research suggested that a Government body had targeted people who bought candles with fire safety adverts.

A person using a laptop
A person using a laptop

Police and Government agencies in the UK have adopted similar tactics to social media influencers and used targeted advertising to tackle crime, a recent report has found.

The study, published by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR), showed that the National Crime Agency had carried out a six-month “influence operation” to tackle cybercrime involving surveillance, direct intervention and targeted online advertising messaging.

Researchers also found a Government Communication Service training podcast which claimed that the Home Office used the purchasing data of people who had recently bought candles to target them through their smart speakers with fire safety adverts.

The study shows these online influence tactics, being used on both a local and national level, are also being used to influence the public on health and social policy.

Dr Ben Collier of the University of Edinburgh, one of the paper’s co-authors and researchers, said while this approach could help crime prevention, there remains concern over potential negative consequences such as further stigmatising groups who already face structural oppression through targeting and surveillance, causing potentially serious anxiety or harm.

He said: “In some cases these practices could potentially have the opposite effect from that intended, with the targeting serving to spread the very unwanted narratives and behaviours they are aiming to counter.”

Dr Collier added: “We found examples of well thought-out and effective campaigns, some of which were developed directly with the communities they were speaking to, but some of the campaigns appear much more invasive and worrying.

“The Home Office’s go-home vans and anti-knife crime advertising on boxes of fried chicken were called to the public’s attention because they appeared in public spaces.

“But when this happens in people’s living rooms and on their mobile phones through targeted ads, it is potentially much harder for those responsible to be held accountable.”

Dr Daniel Thomas, of the University of Strathclyde, who also co-authored the report, said the “influence government” practices require more scrutiny.

He said: “These advanced marketing approaches are more than just communications and go far beyond media management. Our research suggests that they are front-line policy interventions and need to be seen as such, and subjected to the same public debate, scrutiny and accountability as other such policies.”

Dr Thomas added: “There is also a need for legal and ethical questions to be answered around the selection of particular groups and characteristics, the use of operational data to inform these campaigns, privacy and data rights concerns, and the algorithmic aspects of the targeting itself and the data which this generates and relies on.

“Although our research and the briefing paper focuses on UK law enforcement agencies and Government departments, we have recently acquired funding to study these issues further in a Scottish context.”

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