The Federal Reserve is receiving proposals for a "Sentiment Analysis and Social Media Monitoring Solution" that would track public perceptions on the economy and enhance the government's public communications.
Just the Facts
Before leaping into this red-hot political topic, let's get the details out of the way. In a document that surfaced on Scribd, the Federal Reserve asks bidders to send a proposal for "gather[ing] data from various social media outlets and news sources and provide applicable reporting to FRBNY," with the minimum requirements including analysis of:
- The geographic scope of social media sites. This includes international sources and location-specific data.
- Content and data types, including all major platforms. That means Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, blogs, forums, and news sources.
- Real-time posting. The outline specifies that this is important for both events and understanding the current status of broader events.
- Sentiment (indicating whether the general sentiment is positive, negative, or neutral) for any topic the Fed specifies.
The system itself must also be advanced, including multi-group permissions, a customizable alert mechanism, and integration with the Fed's current technologies. As we're still in the bidding process, there's no sure way of knowing what this will cost or if the investment will go through at all.
Onto the Turmoil: Is This "Big Brother"?
The Federal Reserve, as well as who-knows-else in the government, may be looking at our social media data to see what we're thinking. They could analyze our feelings on their selected topics, launching counter-campaigns.
The potential consequences of having this information range all the way from the Fed increasing information accessibility and tuning their policy-making to the actual feelings of the public to intentional misinformation and finding "terrorist suspects" based on nothing more than their tweets. Really, the possibilities are that broad.
The question isn't whether social media can be valuable, it's how much you trust the government to use that information wisely. As noted by Fast Company, there have been plenty of private companies who offer online and offline analysis, and the Fed – and the rest of the government – have a long tradition of looking into that information.
Additionally, the tracked information won't be your personal documents: It will be your public posts. Normal privacy regulations would apply.
The U.S. government has been fairly fast in getting involved in social media. They launched military research and recruitment efforts using social platforms earlier this year, and the majority of political representatives now have a Facebook page and Twitter profile.
There's plenty of logic in governments using the social tools at hand; anti-government and illegal activities, such as the UK riots in August, the Anonymous DDoS attacks, and revolutionary actions in Egypt all took great advantage of social media. If any government wants to be able to counter such actions, having access to the social tools and the information coming from them makes sense.
Could this be the U.S. government controlling its own people through information warfare? Well, if you think so, this isn't Big Brother coming to town. It's just Big Brother getting a powerful new toy. On the other hand, if you trust the government to use information wisely, this should be good news. The access to social data certainly can work in everyone's best interest.