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Home Office Creating New ‘Digital Hostile Environment’ with Targeted Social Media Ads

‘The “go home” vans were a scandal because people saw them in the street,’ one expert told this newspaper. ‘With these ads, if you are not the target demographic, then you will just never see them’

Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks at the National Conservatism Conference in London in May 2023. Victoria Jones/PA/Alamy

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The Home Office is using hyper-targeted social media adverts to create a new “digital hostile environment” and target refugees or migrants in central Europe, campaigners have claimed.

Academic analysis of data released by Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, reveals the highly personalised profiles being used to target adverts at those suspected of planning to cross the Channel.

One states: “Don’t lose your life for the sake of coming to Britain.” Others said that, if migrants help drive a boat, “we will arrest you as a people smuggler” and that “small boats will be destroyed by big ones”.

Some of the adverts target those who speak languages such as Arabic or Pashto, while some profiles used in the past included very personal identifiers such as supporting the Afghanistan cricket team.

A Freedom of Information request by Byline Times revealed that the Home Office has spent more than £2.6 million on social media campaigns relating to immigration policy since 2019, and has had nearly 820 million impressions. People in 35 countries have been targeted.

Experts said that the Government should not be targeting refugees with “scare campaigns” and that targeting people based on personal interests was potentially discriminatory.

Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, communications director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “The Home Office continues to target people who seek safety in our country and squander heaps of money on useless, absurd and punitive anti-refugee scare campaigns. The Government’s scaremongering propaganda campaigns are cruel and we know they won’t work. 

“Instead of wasting public money on creating a digital hostile environment, this Government could be investing in pulling the country out of a cost of living crisis, fixing their broken immigration system, and helping people rebuild their lives in our country.”

Deborah Brown, a technology expert at Human Rights Watch, said the use of messaging in this way was “concerning” and that the Home Office is “using this system to spread divisive messaging and create a new hostile environment”.

The department said adverts are targeted towards social media users who speak certain languages or are in certain regions, but that it is no longer targeting people by interest. It said government communications campaigns are considered to ensure they represent value for money.

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The Labour peer – who fled the Nazis and came to Britain as a child refugee in 1939 – told Byline Times that Priti Patel’s plans “to penalise people for the way they reach safety is absolutely unheard of in the history of refugees”

How the Adverts Work

It is not possible to target refugees or potential immigrants directly with social media adverts, so instead the Government messaging used a number of profiles of users which could match someone planning to cross the Channel.

Some of the characteristics used were vague, such as language spoken, being in a certain place – Brussels, for example – or being away from home. 

But some were very specific: supporting the Syrian national football team or liking Syrian cuisine, for example.

Ben Collier, a lecturer in digital methods at Edinburgh University, has studied the Home Office advertising techniques in detail. He told Byline Times that the result meant that refugees were being exposed to harm, but that locals in European countries who happened to fit the same profile were being exposed to the same threatening messaging.

“It’s causing harm to the refugees because they are being targeted with these very nasty, fear-based adverts,” he said. “It’s also immensely discriminatory to Muslims or Arabic speakers living in places like France and Belgium. They are getting bombarded with these ads while their neighbours are not.

“It will often be described as just a PR or advertising campaign, but I don’t think that really captures what is going on.”

Muthiah said that “targeting people based on the language they speak and cricket team they support is approaching discriminatory practice”.

Collier also said there was the risk that money was being wasted targeting the wrong people. “Some people who saw some of these campaigns were Arabic-speakers living in Mexico who had visited Brussels – essentially Arabic-speaking holiday-makers,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like a good use of taxpayers money to be targeting these people.”

A New Hostile Environment

The idea that political actors and governments would use social media advertising to target people with their messaging is nothing new. However, experts said the Home Office has effectively created a “digital hostile environment” – an echo of the infamous approach taken by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary.

This came to a head in 2013, when vans bearing large writing telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” were dispatched to drive around areas with high immigrant populations.  The scheme was scrapped following criticism and a report from the Home Office in October 2013 claimed that only 60 people had left the UK as a result.

What is different today is that the internet and social media means that Government messaging remains largely hidden from those who are not meant to see it.

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“The ‘go home’ vans were a scandal because people saw them in the street,” Collier said. “With these ads, if you are not the target demographic, then you will just never see them. If you are an Arabic speaker living next door to a French speaker, you won’t be seeing the same things.”

Susannah Copson, of Big Brother Watch, said the use of what she called “surveillance advertising techniques” to influence behaviour was “deeply concerning”.

“Any government agency or body using commercial advertising techniques to try and shape people’s behaviour should operate transparently and publish details about these activities in full,” she said.

A spokesman for the Home Office told Byline Times: “Evil criminal gangs are putting profit over people by facilitating dangerous and illegal small boat crossings. We have a duty to warn people of the risks of these journeys and expose the lies sold to vulnerable people by inhumane smugglers.

“It is essential people have accurate information when considering life-threatening attempts to cross the Channel and know there are safe alternatives. The message of the campaign is clear: do not put your life in the hands of dangerous criminals.”

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