Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Problem With Taxpayer Funded Social Media

Whooee! Well, friends an' foes, the twitterverse and blogdom is finally sittin' up and takin' notice that our gummint is paying for favourable postings in various social media. There was a story on it over the weekend: Harper government monitoring online chats about politics. As Stageleft points out, the headline is somewhat misleading. The government is not only monitoring online opinion, they're jumping in and "correcting misinformation." Stageleft says he has no problems with the practice. I disagree.

I posted a bigass comment over at Stageleft and I'm recyclin' it here. Nobody is paying me to post my opinions, btw. I'm open to offers, though. If I'm paying for the government to hire a social media contractor to refute me, I may as well get paid, too.

Here's what I said at Stageleft:
Of course we know that the government and political parties monitor social media. I have no problem with that and, as you say, we want them to take notice of what we, the everyday citizen, is opining.

What I find very questionable is the use of tax dollars to refute opinions which the government has deemed "incorrect." Perhaps a government in bed with big oil thinks it is incorrect to criticize BP for deepwater drilling without a contingency disaster plan. Rand Paul recently stated that criticism of BP with regard to Gulf oilspill is "un-American".

Is criticism of our own tar sands un-Canadian? Do we want our criticisms challenged by bought-and-paid-for PR firms working not for the oil industry but for us? When we express our opinions on our own time, should we be footing the bill for some flak to be countering us?

There's also the issue of credibility. Next time a pro-Harper comment is posted here or on my blog or on Twitter or on Facebook, who could help but wonder if that comment is being paid for with tax dollars and doesn't even necessarily represent the true thinking of the individual whose job it is to spout the government line?

If I were a pro-CPC or pro-Harper tweep or blogger, I'd be a bit concerned that I'd be suspect of not being genuine in my postings but merely working for $XX per tweet on the taxpayer dime.

If private corporations want to hire paid tweeps or bloggers and do so anonymously (or pseudonymously) without any disclaimers, that's business using investor capital to promote its product. I have little problem with that sort of astroturfing and have come to expect as much.

It's when government uses my own money to refute me that I have a problem.

I'm starting to see a few blogs supporting the MPs rejection of Sheila Fraser's request for an audit. Are those bloggers being paid from the public purse to shield MP expenses from scrutiny? One can't help but wonder.

When governments surreptitiously plant the government position into social media -- on our dime -- we no longer have honest discussion. The paying of social media contractors to shape public opinion goes beyond publishing talking points for the faithful to parrot on their own time, at their own expense.

Again, I have no problem with party staffers, company employees, paid PR firms pushing their agenda via social media. When it's done at public expense, however, it crosses a line much like the line crossed when Helena Guergis's staffers wrote letters of support to editors. It dilutes genuine public opinion to the detriment of social media.
Before anyone bothers arguing or refuting anything I just said, be warned: I will be able to accuse you of being a bought-and-paid-for flak spouting the line you're being paid to spout.



Dennis Buchanan said...

I'm not sure the credibility concerns really bother the CPC very much. It has long been known that they have a strategy of encouraging and/or paying supporters to crawl the web for any sort of dissent, posting Conservative talking points as if they were sincerely-held beliefs. It shakes the swing vote, because to anyone following social media, the conservative position appears to be overwhelmingly accepted. It's proving to be an effective strategy, and the Conservatives have been using it very well.

The occasional accusations on these social media sites of remunerative jingoism are usually impossible to substantiate and don't nearly undermine the overall effect of the strategy.

What shocks me, however, is the revelation that the strategy is being financed by tax dollars and not the party's own coffers. We know that the Conservative government has been toeing the line of propriety when it comes to spending on 'awareness' media campaigns for its programs...but at least there's a certain amount of transparency in these things. The public can judge for itself when it sees a commercial tagged "Paid for by the Government of Canada".

But when our tax dollars are paying for anonymous social media contributions, there's little-to-no accountability at all. At a minimum, "correcting misinformation" will have a political skew. It's quite possible that they could be waging a full blown partisan campaign in the social media spectrum on my tax dollars, and that outrages me.


JimBobby said...

Thanks for chimin' in, Dennis.

I agree. It's definitely the use of taxpayer-paid employees and taxpayer-funded contracts that bothers me most.

The credibility thing should bother CPC supporters. Those talking points parrots might also be wondering if they're being taken advantage of. They spout the CPC line for free while social media contractors -- who may not even hold conservative views -- get paid to do the same thing.

I guess a Ministry of Truth can't be far off.

Saskboy said...

The ministry of truth exists, it's currently the Prime Ministers Office.

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