Menu Close
Photo of a man using a laptop in shadow, darkness

Targeted social media ads are influencing our behaviour – and the government uses them too

Social media feels more chaotic and compulsive than ever, and the advertising more frequent and less obvious. Scrolling past endless influencers and videos on TikTok and Instagram, you may have been urged to buy something or change your behaviour without even noticing. And governments, including the UK government, are now buying in.

In mid-February, it was reported the Home Office plans to pay social media influencers in Albania to discourage people from travelling to the UK by small boat across the Channel.

This news seemed to come from nowhere. Even many of the influencers reportedly being considered said they had never heard of these plans. But in fact, it is only the latest example of how government and law enforcement in the UK have been using social media to implement policy and influence the public.

The Labour party has also proposed training influencers in schools to be positive role models for boys, to counter the misogyny that spreads on social media.

Social media has introduced complex new ways for creators and advertisers to influence their users. One of the most ubiquitous is targeted advertising, where companies (and governments) can direct ads to people with certain traits or interests.

I have been researching how governments have used these tools to deliver policies and change people’s behaviour. This practice, which my colleagues and I call “influence government”, started in counter-terrorism. The Home Office was an early adopter, introducing several campaigns throughout the 2010s in an attempt to counter online radicalisation.

One example was This is Woke, which purported to be a digital media network for young UK Muslims. In fact, it was created for the Home Office as part of its counter-terror strategy.

Less clandestine examples have included a campaign against child exploitation that targeted people who used specific keywords in their social media posts. Advertisements for support services for victims of serious violence were targeted to postcodes near individual hospitals, and tailored the accents of the actors in the videos to match the local area. And recent campaigns to support people facing issues in social housing targeted those in low-income groups showing a recent interest in DIY.

Migration and targeted advertising

The Home Office has used digital influence in its migration and security policy for years. The i newspaper uncovered a campaign designed by the behaviour change agency Seefar, aimed at asylum seekers in Calais and other French and Belgian towns between January 2021 and September 2022.

The ads depicted military drones, dogs and boats sinking at sea, tapping into fear and emotion to demonstrate the risk of attempting a Channel crossing.

My colleagues and I found that these advertisements targeted people based on interests that acted as proxies for ethnicity or religion. We analysed data obtained from the Meta (Facebook’s parent company) ad library for researchers, which showed the different interests and behavioural characteristics used in the advertising profile.

This long list of identifiers – people who recently left their hometown, with an interest in Syrian food, supporters of the Afghanistan national football team, Arabic speakers – shows us exactly who was being targeted. The i later reported that these cost the Home Office at least £35,000 to run.

Two screenshots of Facebook ads, one with Arabic text showing a photo of migrants in a boat, and another with English text reading 'there is no hiding place' with a photo of a dog sniffing a lorry.
Two examples of targeted advertisements run by the Home Office. Author provided

In our ongoing research, we have compiled a dataset of several thousand campaigns currently being used by UK law enforcement on Facebook and Instagram alone. These include counter-terror advertisements that display when your phone moves into a certain postcode, anti-misogyny campaigns that target the use of particular words on social media and ads that pop up when you search for illegal services on Google.

Although these advertising campaigns may pose some solutions to social issues long thought intractable, they raise serious concerns about privacy, transparency, democratic oversight and political participation.

Their use by law enforcement, in “influence policing”, is even more controversial – giving the police sophisticated tools to shape the behaviour of the public.

As advertisers, the police has a unique relationship to its audience. It is the only body whose marketing is backed up by the power to use lethal and coercive force. This means that law enforcement use of these approaches needs an even higher level of oversight and accountability.

From influence to influencers

The campaign to use influencers to convince people not to risk the journey to the UK marks an evolution of government communications. The marketing doesn’t just advertise government policy or raise awareness of an issue, it is a key part of how the policy works. If implemented, it would draw on influencers’ personal connection and power over a specific audience that the government wants to target.

Two years ago, this would have been seen as far too risky – influencers can easily go off-message or court controversy. But the growing popularity of platforms like TikTok, which rely on video content and have fewer levers for direct targeting, has necessitated a change.

Influencers are agile, moving with their audience between different platforms, and maintaining a direct connection with their communities. As the online environment further changes, with digital advertising being one of the first industries to lean into the possibilities of generative AI, there needs to be far more transparency and public debate around how government and law enforcement are using digital communications.

There are other privacy and ethical concerns at play. The campaigns deterring Channel crossings were seen by French and Belgian Muslim communities well beyond the target audience. This raises questions about the ethics of using religion and ethnicity in ads designed to instil fear.

These campaigns have long ceased to be a mere advertisement for government policy. They are now a frontline tool of how policy is delivered and government is seeking to influence our lives.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,200 academics and researchers from 5,000 institutions.

Register now