NEWS8 September 2021

Report identifies increased police and government use of ‘influence’ tactics on public

Behavioural economics Data analytics Media News Public Sector UK

UK – Online targeted advertising is becoming more commonly used across government and by police forces, according to a study by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR).

Audience targeting

Researchers at the SCCJR found that law enforcement and government agencies are using tools such as digital platforms, paid targeted advertising and social media influencers to influence the public for crime prevention, health and social policy.

The researchers analysed publicly available documents relating to local government, central government, suppliers and specific campaigns to map how digital communications, tracking and advertising tools are used.

The briefing paper, Influence government: exploring practices, ethics, and power in the use of targeted advertising by the UK state, outlines three main communication functions being achieved through the use of platform ads and digital influence networks: to inform provision or awareness raising; to moderate or modify culture and attitudes of the public in general or particular groups; or for behaviour change – direct nudge and decision shaping of particular groups.

The paper categorises the range of practices and examples into various ‘modes’ of sophistication, ranging from targeted advertising as a space for traditional communications, to the use of advanced frameworks around what the researchers term ‘surveillance influence infrastructures’ being incorporated into the daily practice of public sector organisations.

The researchers theorise that the growth in these practices goes beyond ‘nudge’ or behavioural science towards a new approach they have termed ‘influence government’.

The SCCJR is a collaboration between the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and Strathclyde. It aims to produce research that informs policy and practice and advances understanding of justice.

Daniel Thomas, University of Strathclyde, who co-authored the report, 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.”

“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.”