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The government wants to surveil social media users, and track their ‘sentiments’


The Indian government is taking yet another aim at surveilling social media, just two years after it had to withdraw a controversial proposal to build a social media monitoring hub, after the Supreme Court likened it to a move towards a “surveillance state”. This time, the government is planning to develop a surveillance tool which will monitor individual social media users, and track overall trends on various social media platforms, among other things. Alarmingly, it will also “crawl” through paid and private social media data, monitor social media trends and “sentiments”, and track trends relevant to “government related activities”, which “may have adverse negative impact on socio-economic fabric of the society”.

The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, through Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), last month floated an expression of interest to empanel an entity to create this surveillance tool.  It’s not clear what the rush was, but BECIL made the EoI public on September 18, and closed it after a week on September 24. The Print first reported this.

In May this year, BECIL had floated an expression of interest document, seeking to empanel an agency which provides “solutions and services” related to “fact verification and disinformation detection on social media platforms”. It was essentially an effort to surveil social media under the guise of detecting fake news. Under the latest EoI, the surveillance tool will be able to perform like a search engine, and work both as s “web crawler” and a “social media crawler” to search various hashtags, and keywords across social media platforms. This EoI is a continuation of an earlier 2017 EOI floated by BECIL which aimed to “track overall trends on various social media platforms”.

The surveillance tool has a wide mandate

The surveillance tool will monitor individual social media users, and track overall trends on various social media platforms. It will also analyse “various actives” happening on social media and mark certain social media activities as “problematic”. It will also have to categorise “actionable data”, and keep track of social media influencers. Other functions include:

  • Warning the govt of emerging trends, tracking ‘sentiments’ on social media: The surveillance tool should also be able to create an “early warning” system, essentially alerting an organisation, in this case presumably the government, about an emerging problem. Social media trends and “sentiments” will also have to be monitored, particularly those relevant to government activities.
  • Monitoring social media campaigns and events: Social media campaigns and events will be monitored as well, and a semantic analysis, presumably of popular social media trends will have to be done. A “listening tool” will also have to be developed. Social media listening tools essentially allow operators to monitor how many times a particular topic or keyword is used across social media platforms. Based on this forecasting and signalling, the tool will have to highlight incidences that may have adverse a negative impact on socio-economic fabric of the society. “Thus agency would be responsible for trend tracking analysis and early warning system,” the document said.
  • Message monitoring: This will allow in understanding the “overall social media response to a message, tweet or data”, and will help in generating reports in various formats like graphs, charts etc. Reports will be on messages/tweets, users, keywords along with daily, weekly, and monthly reports. The empanelled agency will be responsible for storing all monitoring-related content and data, and will have to provide an online or offline archival support equipped with a cloud based server, and a physical server. It should support “long-term retention”.
  • Single interface to monitor multiple platforms: This surveillance will be performed via a customer relationship manager (CRM) software, “which will enable Government /Authorities to engage with people at large”. The software should be a single user interface to monitor multiple social media platforms at once, and “facilitate various online events management such as Twitter Conference, Online Contests, polls, Competitions, Google+ hangout etc.”.

Making government content go viral, and enrolling digital volunteers

Aside from tracking social media content and its users, the selected agency will also have to offer response management services to the government, which include making its content go viral, responding in real-time to comments received by social media users, and creating an “inbox kind of look and feel for response management processing”. To ensure virality of content, new digital volunteers will have to be enrolled, and the agency will also have to engage with existing digital volunteers.

The agency will also create logo, banners, and designs suited to different social media platforms “which will help in brand promotion and brand recall”. The agency will also have to maintain multiple accounts for multiple ministries/departments, and develop different mobile phone applications according to the government’s requirement.

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Eligible bidders

A bidder should be a registered company in India and should have been in existence for a minimum of three years. It should also have a minimum average annual turnover of more than Rs 70 lakh in last three consecutive financial years (FY 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19).

An eligible bidder should have either successfully completed one similar project valued at over Rs 80 lakh or two or more such projects of over Rs 50 lakh, involving social media monitoring and response management, and operation and maintenance of a social media hub. It should also be engaged in a similar project in the last three years. The Print report said that four companies have expressed their interest in developing the surveillance tool.

Govt’s 9th attempt at surveilling social media

This is the Indian government’s ninth attempt to explicitly and directly monitor social media. Before the May 2020 attempt, the I&B Ministry in April 2018 had sought bids for a 800-person network for granular social media monitoring, going down to district-level monitoring. The then I&B minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had said that the hub is meant to “facilitate information flow regarding its policies and programmes through social media platforms”.

In 2017, the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, under the Electronics and IT Ministry said it was launching a social media monitoring tool, called e-vidur, to analyse social media posts, and gauge the “sentiment” of people. BECIL itself — which says it has developed expertise since its formation in 1995 in “executing various turnkey based IT projects especially in the areas of Social Media Monitoring, Response management and other related services” — has floated at least four such tenders:

  1. In December 2015: to monitor individual social media user/account
  2. In February 2016: Sought bids asking for a “listening tool”
  3. In July 2017: Invited bids to “track overall trends on various social media platforms”
  4. In May 2020: Invited bids for “solutions and services” related to “fact verification and disinformation detection on social media platforms”

The I&B Ministry withdrew its previous proposal for social media monitoring, after the Supreme Court likened it to surveillance state: In a challenge to the April 2018 proposal, the Supreme Court had said that India will be “moving towards a surveillance state” if the proposal goes through. Mahua Moitra’s petition had argued that the proposal has no legal basis, defeats the right to privacy, and robs an individual of their identity. The government eventually withdrew the proposal, and indicated that it would be reviewed.

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