The FDA Wants To Dig Through Everyone's Stuff In Order To 'Monitor Online Sentiment'
from the a-tough-sell-in-the-current-anti-surveillance-climate dept
The FDA would like to know what you’re thinking. It doesn’t want to read minds and it couldn’t care less about your lesser, non-FDA-related thoughts. That stuff’s for other agencies with even creepier intentions and more nefarious toolsets. No, the FDA wants to know what you, the public, think about the FDA. And by “think,” it means post stuff on the internet. And by “stuff,” it means damn near everything.
Regulatory Focus (via the Pharma Marketing Blog) reports that the FDA is seeking bids from contractors in order to provide the agency with assistance in “monitoring online sentiment.”
It is similar in many respects to an earlier contract awarded to help the agency monitor social media traffic. That contract was subject to a considerable amount of scrutiny by some legislators, including Republican Tom Coburn (R-OK), who included the project in his influential yearly “Wastebook” (#87) of allegedly superfluous taxpayer-funded projects.
“Being liked is important, but maybe federal agencies should take some time away from figuring out what people think about them and spend more time just doing their job,” Coburn’s report quipped.
This new push for an online sentiment tracker does seem more than a little needy and/or narcissistic. Sure, even federal agencies need to do a little PR work from time to time, but the regulatory agency’s focus should be regulating, not scanning the web for “influencers” in order to slightly better target its talking points and drug interaction updates.
This would just seem like a bit of the old “B.M.F. (US Gov. Remix)” if the FDA wasn’t looking to cast an FDA-centric dragnet across the internet in order to achieve its goal of… well… being liked? Here’s a truncated list of everywhere and everything the FDA wants to “monitor” for “sentiment.”
Must draw from multiple social media channels, including (but not limited to): blogs, forums, Twitter, social networking, etc.
Must draw from mainstream media sources
Must draw from photos, audio and video sources
Must draw from open source data sets, including, e-commerce sites Amazon, drugstore.com, etc.),
Must draw from proprietary data sets
Must allow for network, nodal analyses of communications channels, influencers, propagators, etc.
The contractor providing this glorious bounty of harvested data and content is given the option of doing the work onsite at the FDA or on its own premises and must be able to create a robust program that is easy, accessible, powerful and deeply technical. Said contractor must also be able to discern the meaning of the following word salad without mocking the agency or consulting a third-party interpreter.
Gain access to the message impact to the geographic area, determine influencers and create analytics to better target the outreach of public health messages to various audiences
Oh, and presumably the software needs to come in under budget, or at least not so far over it that Sen. Coburn adds FDA Online Sentiment Monitor And Message Impacter (v. 1.3b) to the 2015 edition of Wastebook.
So, as Coburn sort of asked, why should the FDA care what the public is thinking (or at least spreading all over the internet), or why should it care so much that it’s willing to task a contractor with sifting through nearly everything that can be publicly posted in order to make small adjustments to its PR efforts? Is it really worthwhile to chase down something this nebulous? The FDA obviously believes it is. This is its second attempt to turn social media into a set of massageable numbers.
But what about privacy concerns? Nothing in the bid document mentions anything about that. Of course, the government assumes that if people are willing to post things publicly then they’re willing to share it with federal agencies as well. There’s no expectation of privacy to prevent a private contractor from rooting through videos, photos, blog posts, podcasts and other shared content in hopes of quantifying online feels vis-a-vis the FDA.
But a smart agency would take into consideration the potential impact of its data/content trawling, first and foremost in terms of public image, because that area — the same one it’s trying to improve — is the one that will take the most damage when people witness yet another agency rooting around in their stuff. (Yes, they share stuff and they still consider it “theirs.” It’s weird but that’s how humans feel about personal content, even if shared publicly.) Just because you can do it with no legal repercussions doesn’t mean you should do it, especially in pursuit of vagaries like “online sentiment.”