School of Social and Political Science

Police and government use online ‘influence’ tactics to tackle crime and shape behaviour in the UK



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New research has found that advertising and influencing techniques often used by marketers and advertisers to encourage audiences to buy products are being used by law enforcement and government agencies in the UK for crime prevention.

Researchers found that digital platforms, paid targeted advertising, and social media influencers commonly used by marketing agencies and advertisers to sell products are being used by police and government in the UK to target and influence the public for crime prevention, health and social policy.

The research was carried out by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR). Dr Ben Collier at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science (SPS) was one of the report’s co-authors.

The findings are prompting calls for more scrutiny and accountability as this practice continues to grow.

Tackling cybercrime and violent crime with Prevent strategies

Researchers also discovered that strategies developed under Prevent, a controversial counter-radicalisation programme where government agencies try to identify and stop people from engaging in terrorism, are increasingly being adopted in other aspects of law enforcement and government work, including to tackle cybercrime and violent crime.

Surveillance, intervention and online advertising

One example highlighted in a new briefing paper for SCCJR states 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 report concludes that law enforcement and government departments are developing the capabilities associated with cutting-edge digital marketing companies, enhancing the powers and data they already have with the technologies of Internet platforms.

Researchers concerned about unforeseen consequences

Dr Collier said: “This kind of targeted advertising and intervention by the UK state is happening at both national and local levels with community leaders and influencers being encouraged to take part in adverts themselves.

“While these approaches may have some positive impacts for reducing harm, we have concerns over the potential for serious unforeseen consequences. This can include stigmatising groups who already face structural oppression through targeting and surveillance, causing potentially serious anxiety or harm. Or 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.

“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.”

Read the full briefing

These issues are detailed in a new briefing paper - Influence government: exploring practices, ethics, and power in the use of targeted advertising by the UK state - which is available on the SCCJR website.

It is authored by:

  • Dr Ben Collier, SPS at the University of Edinburgh
  • Dr Gemma Flynn, University of Strathclyde
  • Dr James Stewart, University of Edinburgh
  • Dr Daniel Thomas, University of Strathclyde

Find out more

You can also read this blog article on the subject and a view recent seminar by Dr Ben Collier and Dr Daniel Thomas on the SCCJR YouTube channel.

Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at SPS

Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the School of Social and Political Science


Photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash