Ideas have their moment in time, before which they fall to the floor unheard, but when the moment comes they resonate and engulf the unwary. Privacy has found its moment on the eve of the Australian Census 2016. It’s a firestorm and the use of a Twitter bot has helped fuel the flames of discontent.
Tweet storm erupts on census eve
Who would have thought that we would see Senators declaring that they will deliberately break the law in relation to fulfilling their compulsory Australian Census obligations, and the fury over privacy which has erupted over the last few days prior to tonight’s census due-date?
Brexit, political disenfranchisement, hacker cyber attacks – who knows but a confluence of feelings has combined with an inept handling of the 2016 Australia Census by the Australia Bureau of Statistics to create a flash anti-census movement the likes of which have never been experienced before in Australia. After all, we Aussies are used to compulsory voting and having to get council permits for a street party. Something got us started!
The Twitter activity chart shows the explosion in interest in the census, due to be completed by every denizen of Australia tonight, and it’s not at all good news.
That’s 56,000+ tweets since 1st of August and approaching 20,000 in the last couple of days (the graph tails off only because it hasn’t caught up with today’s activity). The issue is quite clear from the BuzzGraph below – privacy, anonymity and data retention.
The sentiment analysis, even by machine, points to the rapidly emerging PR Crisis for those running the census (the diagram below showing the ratio of negative to positive tweets).
And examples show how people are expressing themselves.
In what seems to be an almighty error of judgment the ABS has decided to deploy a Twitter bot to essential spam people about their obligation to complete the census. This is of course a red rag to a bull, and especially when the Flowics bot chosen by the ABS has itself had a sordid history of its automation creating outrage. Not only does this automation of social media annoy people generally but the fact that the Twitter names are harvested and kept in a system which will trigger tweets to all those people in the future emotionally creates distrust in the ABS.
The hot issue at hand for the census is the collecting of names and identifying data, and yet the ABS adds fuel to the fire by harvesting and keeping people’s Twitter names without their consent and in a manner which could well be in breach of the Twitter Terms of Service(ToS).
It’s a fair argument. If the ABS has no regard for Twitter’s ToS then what regard will they have for our individual privacy. So far, the ABS has dismissed privacy concerns as “illegitimate”, perhaps a response they will come to also regret, as the use of the bot.
It’s a similar style of response from the Minister responsible for the Census, Michael McCormack, who responded to privacy concerns by saying that “it is no worse than Facebook“. That comment alone shows not only how out of touch with the digital world those responsible are, but it plays to the Breakfast TV babble of how untrustworthy Facebook is. The truth is that Facebook has very strong privacy controls and they are far superior to the ABS, neither of which is particularly relevant to the crisis at hand.
Speaking strictly personally, I think it’s all a bit of a storm in a teacup. But it has momentum and will certainly go down as one of the biggest government PR disasters ever, and the performance of those responsible as the crisis unfolded has been the making of case studies in what not to do. It’s not the details but the collective mindset behind the use of social media by the ABS and the apparent lack of any coordinated crisis management plan which is the real story. And the next chapter of this real story will mean that the ABS will never be the same again, mindsets are hard to change, people are easier to shift.