Sadiq Khan says hundreds of thousands spent on anti-Ulez Twitter manipulation


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”.

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.