Police and government agencies in the UK have adopted tactics similar to those of social media influencers and used targeted ads to fight crime, according to a recent report.

The study, published by the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR), found that the National Crime Agency conducted a six-month “influence operation” to combat cybercrime involving surveillance, direct intervention and commercials. targeted online.

Researchers also found a government communications service training podcast that claimed the Home Office was using purchase data from people who had recently purchased candles to target them through their smart speakers with ads. fire safety.

The study shows that these online influence tactics, used both locally and nationally, are also used to influence the public on health and social policy.

Dr Ben Collier of the University of Edinburgh, one of the co-authors and researchers of the article, said that while this approach may help with crime prevention, concerns remain about the potential negative consequences such as the additional stigmatization of groups that already face structural oppression through targeting and surveillance, causing anxiety or potentially serious harm.

He said: “In some cases, these practices could potentially have the opposite effect of what they intended, with targeting serving to disseminate the very unwanted narratives and behaviors that they aim to counter.”

Dr Collier added: “We have found examples of well thought out and effective campaigns, some of which have been developed directly with the communities they are aimed at, but some campaigns seem much more intrusive and disturbing.

“Home Office delivery vans and knife crime advertising on fried chicken cans have come to the public’s attention because they have appeared in public spaces.

“But when this happens in people’s living rooms and on their cellphones via targeted advertising, it is potentially much more difficult for managers to be held accountable.”

Dr Daniel Thomas, of the University of Strathclyde, who also co-authored the report, said the practices of “government influence” need further examination.

He said: “These advanced marketing approaches are more than just communications and go far beyond media management. Our research suggests that these are frontline policy interventions and should be seen as such, and subject to the same public debate, scrutiny, and accountability as other such policies. “

Dr Thomas added: “There is also a need to answer legal and ethical questions regarding the selection of particular groups and characteristics, the use of operational data to inform these campaigns, privacy and data rights issues, and algorithmic aspects of targeting. itself and the data it generates and on which it is based.

“Although our research and the background paper focuses on UK law enforcement and government services, we have recently secured funding to investigate these issues further in a Scottish context.”


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