Maintaining Social Licence for Government Use of False Social Media Personas

Authors: Cleaver, O. & Nicklin, G.
Published in National Security Journal, 12 June 2020

mosque attacks of 15 March 2019, the Government sought urgent advice from the SSC regarding agencies’ uses of social media; this points to a potential lack of clarity about SOCMINT and false persona activity3

The SSC has also questioned Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) staff over their use of false social media personas.4 MBIE stated that this use is to provide online safety for workers involved in investigations. MBIE’s official position is that some undercover activity such as the use of social media personas is sometimes necessary as long as their use meets the relevant necessary privacy requirements.5 Accident Compensation Corporation also argues their need for the use of social media pseudonyms to carry out investigations.6 The growing prevalence of persona use by government agencies is likely a reflection of the affordability of and ease with which they can access this new source of valuable information. Previously, this type of collection and investigation technique was limited to formal Intelligence Communities.7 The views of these government agencies on using social media intelligence methods are clear, but acceptance by the public is not. This article begins to fill the gap in understanding between public expectations and government activity by providing an initial picture of public perceptions about the use of covert social media personas by government agencies and the implications for government policies. It argues that to maintain the social licence for governments to covertly use false social media personas, they need to appropriately balance the need for public protection with the need for personal privacy. Social license refers to the social, political, legal, community and market acceptance of an action or activity.8

The article begins by explaining what false social media personas are and how they are used and establishes the international position on their use by law enforcement agencies. It focuses solely on the use of false personas created by agencies for noninvasive, reactive SOCMINT purposes.9 It does not explore wider international and local concerns about the management of data, terms and conditions of social media site use and the proactive “big-data scanning” carried out by platform owners such as Facebook. While noteworthy, they are outside the scope of this article. Through a mixed method research approach, the article compares public perceptions of government use of covert social media personas with government agencies’ policies and guidelines. The article concludes that while indicative research shows a high level of public acceptance, transparent policy frameworks are needed to maintain the public trust and confidence in SOCMINT governance. It highlights the lack of clarity regarding what is deemed public information and what is deemed private information. This lack of clarity creates barriers in understanding what effective governance of SOCMINT techniques might look like. The article concludes by suggesting the need for further research to validate and extend these findings.