8th September 2021

Marketing agencies and advertisers use digital platforms, paid targeted advertising, and social media influencers to encourage audiences to buy products or change their habits.

Researchers at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) have now found that Law Enforcement and Government agencies in the UK are using the same tools to target and influence the public for crime prevention, health and social policy, prompting calls for more scrutiny and accountability as this practice continues to grow.

During their research they also discovered that strategies developed under Prevent, which is 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.

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.

One of the researchers and co-authors of the paper, Dr Ben Collier, University of Edinburgh, 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.”

Dr Daniel Thomas, 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 frontline 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.”

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, authored by Dr Ben Collier, University of Edinburgh, Dr Gemma Flynn, University of Strathclyde, Dr James Stewart, University of Edinburgh and Dr Daniel Thomas, University of Strathclyde which is available on the SCCJR website.

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.


Media Contact:

Rachelle Cobain, Communications Officer, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research

Notes to Editors:

  1. The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) is a collaboration between the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and Strathclyde. The SCCJR aims to produce research that informs policy and practice and advances our understanding of justice.
  2. The SCCJR Briefing Paper ‘Influence government: exploring practices, ethics, and power in the use of targeted advertising by the UK state’ is available to download from our website.
  3. The blog, ‘Influence government: the fusion of behaviour change and targeted advertising in UK public bodies and law enforcement’ is the SCCJR blog site to read.
  4. In May, Dr Ben Collier and Dr Daniel Thomas gave a presentation ‘Influence government: Targeted advertising in PREVENT, criminal justice and beyond’ which was recorded and is available on the SCCJR YouTube channel.

New Media, Surveillance and Technology