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Exclusive: Himachal Pradesh government wants to monitor social media in attempt at “proactive governance”

The system as proposed by the government will involve tracking social media conversations in real-time, profiling influencers, and carrying out sentiment analysis on collected data. 

In a development worth keeping an eye on, the Himachal Pradesh State Electronics Development Corporation (HPSEDC) has issued a ‘Request for Proposal’ inviting responses to create a grievance redressal mechanism that would identify complaints posted on social media platforms, blogs, etc., and automatically raise tickets on the complaints for government departments to take action. 

The RFP, viewed by MediaNama, stated that the motives behind developing such a system include reinforcement of an “image of a proactive government” along with public satisfaction, identification of genuine issues of citizens, and so on.

Previously, the Supreme Court had criticised a central government tender to create a social media monitoring hub. While not for surveillance purposes, the design of HPSEDC’s project is quite similar to the design of surveillance projects and thus, worth knowing about.

Scope of the project

According to the RFP, the system could be implemented in a span of two years. Its functionalities can be broadly categorised under the following:

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Tracking content and data storage

The system will track and store the following data on its server:

Real-time monitoring and storing of conversations: The RFP asks that the system be able to track in real-time “all open source talk related to State Government” on different platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google +, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, blogs, news, discussion forums, etc., using keywords and channels. Further, the system should be able to ‘query’ and “extract comments without getting detected” which would be stored on its platform “in an easily retrievable way.”

Audience responses: It should also enable viewing audience responses or feedback such as Twitter mentions, Twitter DMs, Hashtags, Facebook tagged posts, Facebook comments, Facebook visitor posts, etc. of multiple accounts on its platform.

Content in different languages: The selected system should also provide tracking and detection in English, Hindi, and other languages.

Responses from government departments: The system will also track the responses that government departments give to aggrieved citizens or relevant concerns posted online.

What will be done with this data?

The data once collected will be used to create profiles, reports, and conduct different kinds of analyses like demographic and sentiment analyses.

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Customised reports for CMO: The tender asks for the system to provide customised reports as required by the Chief Minister’s Office along with periodic reports showing the number of grievances received, disposed of, and pending.

Along with this, it shall also produce multiple reports on Twitter and Facebook mentions as well as the time it takes for resolving grievances.

Influencer analysis and profiling: The RFP lays out that the system will provide ‘Influencer profiling’ along with content, fan, and influencer analysis. It does not specify who this “influencer” can be and does not provide any further details.

Storing consumer data: The RFP specifically asks for provisions to store the historic data of citizens. In certain cases, it mentions that the case history of a complaint should be available. The tender also has a requirement for ‘Customer Data Integration’ which it says ‘allow the export of contacts as a lead or case to third party tools’. It does not list which third-party tools.

Analyses:  After the collection of data, the conversations would be analysed by sentiment (good/ bad/netural), audience intelligence, demographic, competitor benchmarking, industry trend monitoring, content, fan analysis, and more. The tender asks that it should present hourly analyses and display popular topics in the form of Word Clouds and heat maps.

Raising a ticket: The system should be able to pick relevant posts, analyse, segregate, reply, and automatically raise a ticket for the citizen on the complaint.

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Social media management for government: The tender also asks that the monitoring platform understand user habits and tailor exclusive social media management strategies for each social media network. To that effect, the platform will also show social analytic reports (page views, post impressions, etc).

How the grievance redressal would take place

Through APIs (Application Programming interface) the system will be integrated with systems already being used by the HPSEDC and exchange information with it.

Finally, this is how the grievance redressal would take place-

  • The system would enable the prioritisation of any complaints based on keywords tracked through social media monitoring.
  • Once a ticket is raised, the citizen will also get a notification – this may be via an email, SMS, or a WhatsApp message.
  • It would provide an interface for “key personnel” to manage all the incoming cases using actions such as close, ignore or re-assign. It would also allow access to historic data of the case if any.
  • If required, it would escalate a grievance to authorities higher up.

Caveats for maintaining privacy

The tender mentions privacy once in the entire document, under the exit management process of the software – this is a process by which the bidder or supplier of the monitoring software would exit the implementation, operations, and management of the project. As this would take place over a period of time, the tender says that in accordance with various laws, especially those on privacy, the bidder would have to provide a list of all employees dedicated to providing the services at the commencement of the exit management period to the HPSEDC.

The document does not list any other privacy-related restrictions on types of data collected, time for storage, etc.

Less restrictive means of achieving similar goals: Tech policy expert

According to Kazim Rizvi, the co-founder of The Dialogue – a technology policy think-tank, while using platforms for grievance redressal can be useful, there are less restrictive means of achieving similar goals.  “Government handles can evolve chatbots/ implement direct grievances – rather than creating a tool that could induce panic. Any governance system has within its goals, the project of trust-building in the government,” he told MediaNama.

Primarily, he had three concerns:

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Impact on free speech: According to Rizvi, the tool’s proposed real-time monitoring of conversations across social media and other platforms is concerning.

“This widespread monitoring could place limits on freedom of speech, which requires legitimate purposes for infringement under the Indian constitution,” Rizvi told MediaNama.

Fear of misuse: Rizvi said that there were no restrictions in place that could prevent the misuse of the tool. “In the absence of a robust surveillance law, and unclear definitions of “grievance”- it seems premature to develop this tool,” he said.

No defined scope: He also pointed out that the tender does not specify the scope. According to him, any possible intervention that could infringe on other fundamental rights must be carefully defined and narrowly constructed. “A broad-based definition, with unlimited power – all granted to the executive can cause more harm than good,” he said.

Supreme Court’s criticism of social media monitoring

So far, nine attempts have been made to create a social media monitoring hub or tool by the central government.

In 2018, the government had issued a tender for creating a social media monitoring hub that would be able to work as a search engine, a web crawler, and a social media crawler to search various hashtags and keywords across social media platforms. Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra had subsequently challenged this in the Supreme Court which led to its withdrawal following the court’s criticism of the hub.

Justice Chandrachud, as part of a three-judge bench hearing the matter, had said that if the government was seeking to monitor “every single tweet and WhatsApp messages, then we will be moving towards becoming a surveillance state.”

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I cover health and education technology for MediaNama. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

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