Sadiq Khan is expected to claim that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” were spent on an anti-Ulez online manipulation campaign on Twitter, citing research conducted after Labour’s unexpected Uxbridge byelection defeat.
The London mayor, who will speak at a conference in New York on Tuesday, said he feared that disinformation and manipulation campaigns were “spreading apace” but it was not always clear who was behind them.
According to remarks released before his speech, Khan will tell social media companies: “You do not need to wait to be led. You wield incredible power. It’s long overdue you meet your responsibilities and bear down on the attempts to distort truth.”
The mayor said there was evidence that “hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on the anti-Ulez online manipulation campaign on Twitter alone” but “we have no idea who was behind the campaign”.
Research conducted by the social media analysts Valent in July concluded there was evidence of “an extensive online campaign targeted to undermine support for the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez)” before the Uxbridge byelection.
It found that 48% of the accounts on Twitter, now known as X, mentioning Ulez were created after November 2022, and of those about 90% “exhibited signs of inauthenticity”, using generic names and with a high proportion of fake followers.
These accounts – called spreaders – were primarily engaged in retweeting anti-Ulez opinions from real people or groups opposed to expansion of the area covered by the £12.50 daily charge for old, polluting vehicles across all of London in August.
The aim, the researchers concluded, was to have “thousands of accounts promoting anti-Ulez content on to users’ timelines”. Valent said it only looked at anti-Ulez accounts on Twitter, not other social media sites, but it believed the campaign cost at least £168,000.
Labour failed to take Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in July by 495 votes, despite big swings against the Conservatives in two other English seats the same day. The party’s unexpected defeat was blamed on the unpopularity of the Ulez expansion to outer London, prompting recriminations within Labour.
Khan accepts there are “genuine concerns about the impact of Ulez expansion”, but he believes it is possible that those concerns may have been amplified by social media manipulation, and that the technique could be applied in future.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the anti-Ulez misinformation assault was a precursor for a much larger attack on future climate and environmental policies,” the mayor is expected to add, when he speaks at the Strong Cities Network at Columbia University in New York.
In February, the Guardian reported that a team of Israeli contractors sells a sophisticated software package Advanced Impact Media Solutions, or Aims, which can control more than 30,000 fake social media profiles, and can be used to spread disinformation at scale and at speed.
Labour’s John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, will also say on a trip to Washington DC that the US and UK should be on “high alert” for possible election interference from Moscow and elsewhere as both countries prepare to go to the polls in the next 16 months.
He argues for the creation of a new US-UK Democratic Resilience Centre reflecting concerns about the impact of the Russian hack and leak of Democratic party emails in the run-up to the 2016 US election that helped lead to the victory of Donald Trump, and suggestions, never fully investigated, that there was Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.