FDA Hires Obama Campaigners to Track Its Social Media Reach

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Agencies have been encouraged to track how their programs are received online.

A startup launched by veterans of President Obama's election campaign will help the Food and Drug Administration monitor its programs’ social media reach, documents show.

The FDA awarded IB5K an $180,000 contract on Wednesday to produce real-time reports on how many people are responding to the agency’s campaigns on social media, whether those responses are positive, negative or neutral and how they change over time.

The contract includes monitoring conversations on blogs, mainstream news websites and discussion boards as well as on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr and Wikipedia, according to a request for quotation.

“FDA seeks to monitor overall conversations to see what the public is discussing about our work, answer questions for them, and develop consumer content for FDA.gov and our social media channels,” the agency said.

“By monitoring the success and failure of our messages via measurement and sentiment, we can plan more useful strategies to serve our audiences,” the agency said.

Government social media monitoring has proven controversial in the past.

Members of Congress were extremely critical, for instance, of a Homeland Security Department program that mined Facebook, Twitter and the comments sections of online news articles in 2009 to gauge Standish, Mich., residents’ thoughts about a short-lived proposal to move Guantanamo Bay prisoners to an area prison.

Homeland Security officials defended the monitoring program, telling lawmakers they were merely using open information to gauge the overall public sentiment, not gathering identifying information about specific social media posters.  

A September 5 survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found Americans are generally less concerned about the government viewing their online information than about Internet companies viewing the same information. The Pew survey was conducted after revelations about the National Security Agency’s online snooping, including into social media accounts.

The General Services Administration has urged agencies to use systems similar to the one proposed by the FDA, noting that intelligence gathered from social media can help agencies deliver services more effectively and, ultimately, save money.

The White House has issued guidance approving such social media mining programs to gain “situational awareness” so long as agencies level with the public about what information they’re collecting and why.

IB5K offers numerous social media services. The company was founded by Web video producers from President Obama’s 2008 election campaign and bills itself as “From the People Who Brought You Obama ’08.” The company also built the Citizen Cosponsor Project, a site that allows citizens to endorse particular pieces of legislation, for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

(Image via Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com)