Bureaucrats monitor online forums

The federal government has hired a firm to monitor online chatter about political issues in order to identify information being distributed that may not be factual.

The next time you post an opinion in an online forum or a Facebook group message board, don't be surprised if you get a rebuttal from a federal employee.

The government is looking for ways to monitor online chatter about political issues and correct what it perceives as misinformation.

The move started recently with a pilot project on the East Coast seal hunt. A Toronto-based company called Social Media Group has been hired to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has paid the firm $75,000 "to monitor social activity and help identify … areas where misinformation is being presented and repeated as fact," Simone MacAndrew, a department spokesperson, said in an email.

Employees trained in online posting for seal hunt topics

The firm alerts the government to questionable online comments and then employees in Foreign Affairs or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who have recently been trained in online posting, point the authors to information the government considers more accurate.

It appears to be just the beginning.

The seal hunt pilot project was set up in part "to establish foundations and recommendations for future programs and campaigns to use social media as another way to listen to, inform and engage with Canadians," MacAndrew added.

For some, the move to online monitoring was to be expected.

"I think we're seeing the government recognize that millions of Canadians are actively participating online in social networks," said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in internet law.

"We've had Facebook groups in Canada that have grown to the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, and they've clearly had a direct impact on public policy."

Geist himself launched such a Facebook group in 2007. He managed to get more than 84,000 members to help denounce a proposed copyright law that critics said would have restricted the way in which people use, copy or share books, movies and music they purchase.

The bill was eventually put up for public consultations and is expected to be reintroduced in Parliament in the coming days. It remains to be seen, however, whether the online group managed to convince the government to alter the bill.

The commercial seal hunt might be an ideal test case for government involvement in online debate. The issue has polarized Canadians.

Opponents call the hunt cruel and needless and say seals are sometimes skinned alive or killed as whitecoated newborns. Supporters point out that regulations governing the hunt forbid both tactics and the hunt is heavily monitored. They accuse opponents of spreading lies by having celebrities such as Paul McCartney pose with whitecoat seals, pleading for their protection.

Some groups are wary of government employees being paid to post comments.

"I would certainly hope they would be up front about who they are," said Sheryl Fink, a senior researcher with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a group which has long opposed the seal hunt.

"I think it does [help] if it's a link to an actual study. If it's a link to a press release that's got inaccurate information, that's not helping at all. It's, I guess, the distinction between the communications side of the government departments … and the actual science or data."