Social media monitoring an ‘obscene waste’ of Bristol taxpayers’ money

The reports, paid for by a controversial £90,000 contract, make public more than a year’s worth of findings

Bristol City Council has published new reports summarising how it and the city mayor are depicted on social media, sparking renewed criticism the surveillance exercise was an “obscene waste” of taxpayers’ money.

The monthly reports, paid for by a controversial £90,000 contract, finally make public more than a year’s worth of findings by a social media insight and analysis company.

Their publication follows repeated calls for their release from a small number of citizens who debate city politics on Twitter.

Bristol City Council hired Impact Social to harvest and analyse social media chatter linked to the online accounts of the council and city mayor Marvin Rees in March 2018.

The purpose of the secret contract was to help the council “listen to the city, inform policy decisions and understand citizen needs”, according to details released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Bristol City Council hired Impact Social to harvest and analyse social media chatter linked to the online accounts of the council and city mayor Marvin Rees in March 2018.

But some members of the public and opposition councillors were shocked by the surveillance when it came to light in February 2020 and raised concerns the council was “wasting money” on “social media spying”.

At the time, Tim Borrett, the council’s director of policy, strategy and partnerships, said it was “necessary” to monitor the thousands of online conversations about the council and its services each month and “condense this valuable feedback into digestible reports to inform policy and decision-making”.

The 30-month contract, which was later extended to three years, was not renewed. The reports from the last 15 months of the contract, which ended in March of this year, were not published until this week.

The council did not explain why it did not renew the contract or whether it had found the reports useful when asked by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

Each report gives a flavour of that month’s online and social media chatter, with the most mentioned tweeters, the top hashtags, and a breakdown of the topics dominating positive and negative discussions for the month.

In the final report from March 2021, @MarvinJRees was the most mentioned tweeter, #bristol and #killthebill were the two top hashtags, and ‘protests’ dominated both positive and negative discussions.

Impact Social had this to say about the positive discussions about protests that month: “National print and broadcast coverage drove high awareness and sharing of the Mayor’s comments in relation [to] the KillTheBill protests.

“Many posts supported the Mayor’s TV performances for ‘making a lot of sense’ and showing ‘real leadership’, that his statement in response to the protests was ‘excellent’.

“In particular the ‘privileged activism’ quote had a lot of play online.

“In a more sinister conversation citizens came out to defend the personal attacks on the Mayor and his family directly – many expressing disgust with the thuggery shown.”

Negative discussions were described in this way: “A lot of the negativity towards the recent KillTheBill protests links back to what happened with the Colston statue.

“People are blaming the Mayor for ‘encouraging’ and ‘sympathising’ with mobs which they claim has left the city open to rioters.

“Many claim that the Mayor ‘should have seen this coming’, that the reputation of Bristol is at rock bottom and the Mayor is covering up police violence.

“Contrary to the Mayor’s comments, a small minority believe the rioters were very much home-grown in Bristol and not ‘out of towners’.”

Bristol’s twitterati were quick to unpick the reports after news of their release was shared by @TRESAcic this morning (December 22). @martr101 called the reports an “obscene waste of our council tax”.