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Keeping close eye on social media

Feds seek contractor to monitor public 24/7

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OTTAWA -- Big Brother is watching you -- on just about every social media platform you can imagine.

Tweets, public Facebook posts and YouTube videos could soon be subject to round-the-clock scrutiny by the federal government, a procurement document posted this week by Public Works and Government Services Canada suggests.

Welcome to media monitoring in the 21st century, when simply leafing through a stack of newspapers in the morning is about as antiquated as, well, newspapers.

The federal government is seeking a firm that "continuously monitors social media content on a daily basis in near real time and (can) provide web-based, online media metrics and reporting capabilities."

That includes combing through "blogs, micro-blogs, social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter, forums and message boards, traditional news websites and comment sections, media sharing websites (videos, photos and user-generated content websites including YouTube)."

'For the vast majority of the public it will seem creepy because the sense is the government is looking over their shoulder'

The contractor is also being asked to keep tabs on English- and French-language Internet news sites and blogs.

The document specifies the contractor must be able to provide the service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Part of the job will be to gauge the sentiment and tone of posts and to determine their reach.

The social media monitoring service must also come with the ability to filter searches by country, language and key words.

The work, which appears to be on an as-requested basis, runs from next February until January 2019.

Digital public affairs analyst Mark Blevis of FullDuplex.ca said it's not unusual a government would want to know what people are saying, although he concedes some might find that thought disconcerting.

"On one level, there is a creepiness factor to this," he said in an interview.

"But then on another level, it's open data, it's open information. If it's publicly accessible, why should the government have any less privilege accessing it than anyone else in the public eye?

"What they do with it is going to be the big question."

Social media can act as an "early warning system" to alert authorities to major disasters, Blevis said, just as it can be used to track public opinion.

"It depends on the intent. Is it creepy? Yeah, for the vast majority of the public it will seem creepy because the sense is the government is looking over their shoulder," he said.

"But another part of me feels that this is a recognition that this is where the conversations are happening now, and they're happening in plain view."

Public Works said Friday while previous media monitoring work did involve social media, the technology has evolved to the point where a contractor who specializes in social media is necessary.

Media monitoring is standard procedure for any government that wants to understand how its policies and practices are being received by the public, spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold wrote in an emailed statement.

"The government is continuing to monitor social media as a part of general media monitoring," Bujold said.

"Previously, supply arrangements for media monitoring included social media. Given it is a unique field that continues to grow, PWGSC issued on Nov. 29 a separate request for supply arrangements so that specialized firms can compete for this work."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 A22

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