Soft Facts & Digital Behavioural Influencing


Funder: Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST)

Researchers from the Crime and Security Research Institute have studied how fake news spreads on social media in the aftermath of major terrorist attacks and what the police can do to manage its impacts upon public behaviours.


Led by Professor Martin Innes, the research looked at rumours, conspiracy theories, ideological propaganda and fake news on social media in the wake of terrorist attacks including:

  • The murder of Jo Cox MP in the context of the wider Brexit referendum campaign;

  • The 2017 Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge attacks.

Social media communications from police forces were also analysed by the team along with material issued by the police to manage misinformation.  

The previously unexamined data has helped researchers understand how fake news travels in the aftermath of major crime and security events and how digital platforms and environments shape contemporary behaviours.

The study identified the systematic use of fake social media accounts, linked to Russia, amplifying the public impacts of the four terrorist attacks that took place in the UK in 2017.

The evidence is that at least 47 different accounts were used to influence and interfere with public debate following all four attacks. Of these, 8 accounts were especially active, posting at least 475 Twitter messages across the 4 attacks, which were reposted in excess of 153,000 times.

A significant aspect of these interference campaigns was the use of these accounts as ‘sock puppets’ – where interventions were made on both sides of polarised debates, amplifying their message and ramping up the level of discord and disagreement within public online debate.

Terrorist violence is fundamentally designed to ‘terrorize, mobilize and polarize’ its audiences. The evidence suggests a systematic strategic political communications campaign being directed at the UK designed to amplify the public harms of terrorist attacks.

Results from the study are being used to help police design and deliver improved social media communication strategies that reduce community tensions and risks of public disorder in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Working with members of the National Counter-Terrorism Network the insights are shaping future policy and practice for a rapidly developing information environment.

The project was one of eight funded by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), led by Lancaster University, to address some of the security threats facing the UK.

Findings have been published in a Crest Policy Briefing which is available for download here: