As Occupy Wall Street gains stream, the New York Federal Reserve Bank wants to know--for better or worse--how they are perceived. And they're going to monitor social media to figure it out.
A vendor proposal request (or RFP) from the Fed, which describes a "Sentiment Analysis and Social Media Monitoring Solution," surfaced on Scribd  on September 25, and was quickly featured on gonzo finance blog Zero Hedge .
According to the document, the Fed is now evaluating bids for a social media analysis system that will mine data from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and web forums--beginning in December. In order to "handle crisis situations" and "track reach and spread of […] messages and press releases," the project will also identify a number of what they call "key bloggers and influencers" to target with their outreach, and presumably monitoring, efforts.
A Federal Reserve Bank of New York spokesperson, Jack Gutt, told Fast Company:
"This is a new effort for the New York Fed that is under consideration at this time and I am therefore not able to provide any details. The reason for contemplating such an effort is to get a better sense of the relevant concerns and discussions that are taking place in the public domain in order to improve our communications and engagement with the public."
Unfortunately for the Federal Reserve, they are facing a hostile climate in terms of public relations right now. Sluggish economic recovery efforts have increased public resentment of both the government and major investment houses. Big banks such as Bank of America drew ire for a decision to raise debit card fees, broadly. Meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street  movement--a kind of left-wing counterpoint to the Tea Party--is gaining large numbers of sympathizers with vociferous, if sometimes incoherent, anti-big business messages.
The Fed's social media monitoring project appears to be large-scale. It shows the institution's interest in much more than just the thoughts of a few financial bloggers and economists. In their RFP, they have requested that vendors offer a monitoring system that can handle international traffic and social media content in multiple languages--in other words, the Fed wants to monitor social media worldwide.
Apart from social media sources, the Federal Reserve also specifically named the Associated Press, CNN, Wall Street Journal, and Google News' stable of aggregated content for in-depth content analysis. The Fed appears, judging from the bid proposal, to be especially interested in finding out if "there is an ongoing trend of negative sentiment in the financial industry" and in tracking public sentiment for specific keywords and companies or organizations.
While Zero Hedge writers justified Orwellian concerns about a quasi-governmental institution monitoring social media to gauge and influence citizen perception of the economy, similar projects have been going on for a long time.
High-level web and social media analytics are a staggering growth industry; private companies such as Google, Apple, and Procter & Gamble have monitoring schemes that would make any government agency green with jealousy. Fast Company recently reported on predictive analysis  companies--who offer their high-level clients the ability to predict what customers want to see on company homepages--and on creepy/cool real-time analysis  of customers' habits at firms like eBay and Adobe. The Fed's decision to monitor social media sentiment is, however you want to look at it, a natural extension of what's happening in the private sector.
As the Fed goes, so does government in general. Social media monitoring has become a hot topic for government agencies and political candidates. With the 2012 election heating up, nearly all major political candidates have created impressive social media monitoring systems. Firms such as eCairn  are promoting social media analysis solutions for the election and the Republican Party is focusing on social media  in a big way. While the Federal Reserve's plan to monitor social media might be considered creepy, it's also the future.