Govt trawls social media to gauge public mood

  • Zia Haq, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 12, 2015 11:06 IST

Hidden away from public view in the heart of Delhi, a team of seven or eight software geeks is analysing everything social media users say online about politics and the government.

They're tracking reaction to events ranging from mundane cabinet ministers' press conferences to the spicy controversy over Union HRD minister Smriti Irani 's academic degrees or a much-watched speech by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat.

The goal: Provide “structured” feedback to the Prime Minister’s Office, top bureaucrats and intelligence agencies to help the government understand public attitudes to some of its big policies and improve on them.

Welcome to "Sentiment Analysis", borne out of a realisation that just poring over heaps of newspapers every morning to take stock is passe.

Many western governments, such as those of the US and UK, have long watched their social media spaces -- sometimes sparking privacy concerns -- and given how new- media savvy PM Narendra Modi is, it's no surprise that India has followed suit.

The team, from a private software company, is located at the Information & Broadcasting ministry's headquarters in Shastri Bhawan in a room that's out of bounds to visitors. Its members sit huddled over computer screens, applying sophisticated algorithms to trawl hundreds of social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, blogging sites, photo-sharing platforms and the like.

An official, requesting anonymity, denied that privacy would be breached, saying that the terms of engagement specify that data must be anonymous, personal accounts cannot be accessed and information is to be sourced from open content only. HT could not independently confirm this, and a spokesperson for the I&B declined to comment on the project.

The 1,395 analyses done so far categorise feedback as “positive”, “neutral” or “negative”. Unfavourable views of the public are separately highlighted to transform the information into "actionable strategies", the official said.

For instance, negative remarks on primary healthcare centres are directed to the health secretary for action.

An analysis of Swachh Bharat, the government’s national sanitation project, showed 53% of the opinions, representing 275 million mentions, were “positive” and 42% or 218 million mentions were neutral, while 5% or 26 million mentions were “negative”.

The Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yajana, a financial inclusion scheme, had 31% favourable sentiments, 60% “neutral” sentiments and 9% negative views.

“Unless you tap into social media spaces, you cannot get good political feedback these days. The dinner-table talk has moved online,” said blogger Raju K. Sheshan. According to the Pew Research Center, younger users are more likely to “share their political views” and post “political or social material” than older users.

International events are scanned too, such as the Sydney café siege. There is prime focus on events in Pakistan. The reports also help the government have an ear to the political ground. On January 9, for instance, it tracked the hashtag “#CongwithKejriwal” and President Pranab Mukherjee's statement on the Opposition's disruption of Parliament.

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