Mayor of London's Ulez expansion plan 'targeted by online manipulation campaign'

'Sophisticated' bid to skew the green debate may also be a threat in the next general election, says report

The British High Court ruled in the Mayor of London's favour to extend London's Ultra-Low Emission Zone. AFP
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Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s Ulez expansion plan may have been targeted by an online “manipulation” campaign, online investigators have found.

More than 4,114 Twitter accounts were leveraged in an operation estimated to have cost at least £168,000, according to Valent Projects, a UK-based tech start-up that tracks online manipulation.

“The manipulation taking place in the UK is much more sophisticated than the hashtag spamming you get in Africa or the Middle East,” said Amil Khan, the start-up's founder and a former adviser to the British government.

These methods are “likely” to be used in the next UK general election, and have been seen aound several key issues in the national debate, including climate change and the refugee crisis, he added.

The Mayor of London wants to improve the capital’s air quality by expanding the Ultra-Low Emission Zone into outer boroughs. High-polluting cars are required to pay £12.50 a day to drive within the zone.

But critics argue that the tax is an unfair burden on motorists, who are already affected by the cost of living crisis. On Friday, the British High Court ruled in favour of Mr Khan after five Conservative-led councils accused the Labour mayor of acting unlawfully with his expansion plans.

Earlier this month the Conservatives won the by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip – an area that will fall within planned Ulez expansion. The party's opposition to the expansion was credited for the narrow win.

The political fallout prompted Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to reconsider the UK's environmental commitments, calling for a “proportionate and pragmatic” approach to achieving net zero amid cost-of-living pressures.

But there are signs that unknown nefarious actors may be using social media platforms to manipulate the conversation around Ulez, Valent Projects found.

Influential Twitter users who opposed the Ulez expansion had their posts amplified by more than 3,701 apparently inauthentic accounts, according to its report.

There was also a spike in anti-Ulez accounts created after November 2022, when Mr Khan gave the go-ahead for the expansion, following a consultation over the summer.

Expansion of London's Ulez low emissions zone given go-ahead - in pictures

These accounts were then followed by another raft of fake accounts, which served to prop up their posts. “On average, the 3,702 spreader accounts examined have 380 followers each, and these follower accounts are inauthentic,” wrote Zouhir Al Shimale, the report’s author.

“These accounts, called 'validators', are generated and maintained by dubious online vendors to provide customers with the ability to quickly add more followers to their accounts, thereby tricking Twitter’s algorithms into treating these accounts as more important,” he wrote.

The report suspects that these inauthentic accounts are “controlled” or semi-controlled by automated software that can direct more than one account at the same time.

This three-tiered approach helps to amplify the voices of genuine and influential opponents to Ulez. The report does not suggest that these influencers were aware of the manipulation campaign.

“Some of the biggest anti-Ulez voices [ …] are among those we see benefiting from inauthentic amplification, possibly unbeknown to them,” said the report.

“Instead of simple hashtag spamming, this approach manipulates Twitter's algorithm to prioritise content from anti-Ulez influencers. Such manipulation results in thousands of accounts promoting anti-Ulez content on to users' timelines,” the report added.

The estimated costs were calculated by adding up the known fees for buying followers in packages of 1,000 and the published rates for automation software. “This indicative figure might not capture the full cost, as it doesn't include all potential associated services,” the report said.

The investigation did not seek to establish who was behind the campaign, or whether it had an impact on the recent by-elections.

But Valent's founder Amil Khan believes the dangers are clear. Civil society organisations, traditional media and public institutions struggle to find the resources to investigate these sorts of campaigns and devise effective responses,” he told The National.

He added that these findings were just the “tip of the iceberg,” as the initial research has only focused on Twitter activity. “Larger manipulative activities might be happening on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and TikTok,” he said.

Environmental groups have criticised the Prime Minister’s attempts to water down the UK's green and climate commitments.

“We will not stand by while politicians use the environment as a political football,” campaigners including The National Trust and the Woodland Trust wrote in a letter on Saturday. The organisations involved in the letter collectively claim to represent the views of 20 million people.

“There is no public mandate for a delay. It is therefore with deep alarm that we have read reports over the last few weeks of your government considering watering down its commitments on almost every front of environmental policy,” they told Mr Sunak.

Updated: July 31, 2023, 6:27 AM