Govt warned quarter-million-dollar spend of social listening ‘ethically questionable’

Details of the Government’s quarter-million-dollar spend on a total of 230 “social media listening reports” are both “concerning” and “ethically questionable”, according to a senior lecturer in New Zealand politics at Auckland University.

Lara Greaves said New Zealanders would be “surprised and alarmed” if they came across something they’d posted online in one of these reports.

She said despite terms and conditions on sites like Facebook, “most users think of these sorts of sites as a kind of town square, or [a venue] akin to a pub. I think people don’t think that the Government is going to be in there ‘listening’ to those conversations, and if they find out that it is, that risks fuelling distrust of government, especially if the Government isn’t very transparent and explicit about what it’s doing.”

The Government has spent more than $253,000 (as of February 28, 2022) on a series of “social media listening reports” that have measured and analysed the contents of Kiwis’ online posts and conversations since early in the Covid-19 pandemic.

The reports – of which the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) has released just 21 to the Herald – began in April 2020 and were discontinued late last month.

Under the Official Information Act (OIA), the Herald requested the reports going back to 2020. The full request was refused; the DPMC said such a large number of documents would have entailed “substantial collation”.

While the DPMC has proactively released a range of research undertaken to better understand New Zealanders’ views during the pandemic, including polling, surveys and “pulse checks” on sentiment and behaviour, the social listening work has been withheld, excepting limited release under the OIA.

The reports analysed information scraped from publicly visible online posts and comments on sites including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other public blogs and forums in New Zealand, according to Cheryl Barnes, deputy chief executive of Covid-19 response at the DPMC.

Barnes said the reports were generated using the tool “Brandwatch Consumer Research”. Brandwatch is a UK-based company, and its website says it obtains content using proprietary webcrawler technology.

While such social listening is commonly used by corporations in the private sector, typically in tracking brand awareness, Greaves said governments should expect to be held to a higher ethical standard.

Greaves also noted that social media does not provide a representative sample of New Zealanders.

The reports tracked sentiment across different topics over time, and they measured the volume of such posts and graphed changes in sentiment: positive, negative and neutral.

In the reports released to the Herald (spanning December 2021 to April 2022), negative sentiment across all categories outstripped positive sentiment.

The frequency of the reports varied from every four days to fortnightly in the period covered by the release to the Herald. It appears, from the total count, that there was greater frequency of reporting earlier in the pandemic.

The topics covered in reports from early 2022 included:

“Covid Response: The nation’s response to and perception of New Zealand’s leadership and decisions surrounding the response to Covid-19.”

“Economy: Conversations New Zealanders are having about the economy, economic decisions and upcoming recession and recovery.”

“Timeframe: Discussion about how long it will take before traffic light restrictions are lifted or when life returns to normal.”

“Team of five million/Unite against virus: Encouraging the nation to rally together, comply with the rules and cheerleading the cause.”

Each report also drilled further into a single topic and supplied screenshot snippets of largely anonymised conversation (the names of some “recognised experts” were retained).

The conversation snippets also contained highlighted “search query” words: in the sample of reports provided to the Herald, such keywords included: government, Jacinda, National, kids, staying home, double jabbed, MIQ, travel, Covid test, spread and vaccine.

Barnes said the names of public figures, such as the Prime Minister and other politicians, sometimes appear highlighted in the reports: “This is because they are listed in the base search query that Annalect uses when analysing issues and topics around Covid-19, and they happen to come up, from time to time, in examples of conversations they provide in the reports. It is important to note that Annalect does not track mentions of these individuals’ names for DPMC.”

In March, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the reports (none of which were released publicly at the time) had “given the Government insight and [allowed] officials to be well informed on what the public are [sic] having difficulty understanding about any guidelines around behaviours and the response”.

Barnes said the reports “provided valuable insights into the impact of pandemic restrictions, New Zealanders’ acceptance of them and their willingness to carry out Covid-19-related health behaviours”.

Act Party leader David Seymour said the reports reveal the extent to which the Government has tested the wind of public sentiment in crafting its Covid response, all the while telling New Zealanders it’s followed the science.

The reports were supplied by Annalect New Zealand, which changed its name to Resolution New Zealand in May 2020, according to the Companies Register.

Annalect’s work was commissioned through OMD, the media buying agency for the Government’s Covid-19 response.

Barnes said the “analysis compiled by Annalect has also helped measure the success of the Unite Against Covid-19 communications and public information campaign”.

Both Annalect (Resolution) and OMD are controlled by the same majority shareholders: US-headquartered Omnicom Group and Australia-headquartered advertising, marketing and communications group, Clemenger Group.

In addition, Clemenger Group produced the campaign strategy and creative for the Unite Against Covid-19 campaign.

The total government spend on Unite Against Covid-19 advertising and public information topped $87.6m at the end of 2021.

How the listening reports were used

DPMC’s regular “government situation reports”, produced through much of the Delta outbreak in the latter months of 2021 and supplied to both officials and ministers (also released under the OIA), regularly contained information from the listening reports.

The Covid-19: Across Government Situation Report for November 30, 2021 described confusion around the traffic light system.

“There remains some confusion amongst some members of the public regarding the new CPF [covid protection framework] traffic light system. Monitoring of public social media noted an increase in requests for information regarding how specific activities will be affected…”

The reports were also calibrated to help officials and ministers to understand the public’s willingness to accept rules and restrictions, including lockdown measures.

The Situation Report for December 21, 2021, which followed the introduction of the traffic light system and the lifting of the Auckland border, noted: “Overall, the sentiment of discussion on social media about the pandemic has been more positive over the last four days with the biggest shift away from negative sentiment related to financial stability. If cases rise sharply and restrictions are reimposed it is likely sentiment towards all aspects of the pandemic will decline again.”

Barnes said ministers did not receive the listening reports in full.

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