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The reason the U.S. government is investing huge money in social media

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The federal government is looking to pay someone as much as $111,000 a year to do outreach and social media work.

In Uganda.

Where 12 percent of the population uses the Internet occasionally or owns a smartphone.

The job posting is just one example of how social media's rise in popularity is being accompanied by a rise in federal spending on it.

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Some other recent examples of federal spending on, or about, Twitter

$208,000: 2013 grant by National Institutes of Health to University of Rochester to use Twitter to study "disease spread, mental health in a hard-to-reach population, and presence and extent of 'natural helping' in promoting wellness and reducing norms supporting violence in low-income urban neighborhoods"

$125,000 + $100,000: Grants by NIH to University of Washington to study Twitter and how to use it to identify "deviant behavior" -- or tracking when someone Tweets violent or death threats (grants were in 2012-13)

$11,000: State Department expense for outside analysis of U.S. embassy Twitter and Facebook accounts (2012)

$42,000: DOT for a contractor to "design, develop, implement, evaluate and enhance" the Federal Railroad Administration's social media accounts pages (2012)

$260,000: Federal Emergency Management Agency to an outside company to "analyze news clips in which FEMA was mentioned, including times on social media sites like Twitter" (2012)

Source: NIH, FedBizOpps websites

Uncle Sam is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to pay for social media-related services and to fund grants for research into the habits of the Twittersphere and other online worlds.

Exactly how much the federal government spends on social media is not clear. The Congressional Research Service made waves when it found the government spent at least $945 million on advertising and public communications, including social media, four years ago.

But America is increasingly tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming. Nearly three Americans out of every four who are online use social networking sites, Pew Research reported last year. And about one American out of every seven is on Twitter, with that proportion projected to grow to one American out of five by 2018.

Even if a comprehensive total isn't possible to determine, a review of federal contracts and grants and stories in media reports across the country give some insight into how much the government is spending on social media -- such as the $630,000 the State Department spent buying Facebook "likes" last year, news the Washington Examiner broke.

For instance, the National Science Foundation gave a $480,000 grant last year to fund "TwitterHealth," an application developed by a team at the University of Rochester to use Twitter algorithms to track flu outbreaks, according to the Democrat and Chronicle.

Before you laugh, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's for real.

The Atlanta-based agency "taps into social media during outbreaks. It can help us get information,” said CDC spokesman Thomas Skinner.

But it may be too early to use tweets to know when to hit the Airborne and the extra Vitamin C, he said: “I'm not sure we can use it as a predictor."

In a similar vein, the University of California, Irvine received a $139,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health about a year ago to study if Twitter interaction helps smokers quit and avoid relapses.

The completion date of the study was initially supposed to be December 2013, according to clinicaltrials.gov, a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of humans, but the site reported last week the UC-Irvine study was "still currently recruiting participants."

Government's social media outreach can be as innocuous as trying to fight the flu or as controversial as the Department of Veterans Affairs' recent tweet on the need to fight ocean pollution -- a message that came off as tone-deaf to many who have followed the recent scandal at the agency over patient deaths and delayed care.

Coupled with spending such as the USAID job to tweet in Uganda, not everyone is so accepting of the government's spending habits on social media.

"Spending taxpayer dollars on dubious social media accounts and related consulting is obviously not the best use of funds in most cases," said JB Britten, digital director of the right-leaning watchdog group Judicial Watch.

The group maintains a public Twitter list of government and government-related accounts which folks can search to judge for themselves whether the content is worthy of public funds and high salaries, Britten said.

Not all government spending on social media went to just research who's tweeting.

In April, the General Services Administration paid Rivera Consulting Group more than $27,000 to "create new media and perform maintenance of GSA's existing website," including blog posts and Facebook and Twitter content.

GSA has been on Twitter for five years and tweeted about 2,300 times -- or an average of 28 tweets per month. Its Facebook page, which has almost 10,000 "likes," also directs users to the agency's accounts on Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr and Google Plus.

The Department of Health and Human Services -- a huge federal agency that has been the focus of major media attention in recent months because of the launch of Obamacare -- is currently advertising online to hire an outside company to "identify industry suggestions and best practices regarding a social media analytic tool" in February, though its solicitation does not specify how much the agency wants to pay.

LinkedIn, a popular website for professional networking, also gets attention, and thus money, from the government.

In December, the Department of Justice spent more than $540,000 to have an outside company work on its LinkedIn page to "enhance its company profile," according to FBO.gov.

“This will include an enhanced company profile within a large-scale, professional networking platform, and targeted online job advertising to attract highly-qualified Criminal Division employees and intern applicants as well as use the already existing Criminal Division presence,” the contract said.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau earlier this year contracted with TMP Worldwide Advertising and Communications for $71,000 for "talent acquisition web services" via LinkedIn, USASpending shows. The agency, which is supposed to root out discrimination in consumer financial services such as credit cards and mortgages, has itself been accused in recent months of racial and gender discrimination in hiring and promotions.

TMP Worldwide, a "company that leverages software, advertising and creativity to develop and deploy [its] clients' employer brands across digital, social and mobile platforms," has been receiving money from the government for work since 2000, worth nearly $50 million.

For example, HHS paid TMP $21,000 in February for a "silver" LinkedIn subscription for a year, USASpending.

As for the Uganda job, the person who is hired would be stationed in the capital, Kampala, and would be in charge of creating and promoting communication efforts to increase the awareness of U.S. Agency for International Development programs in the country.

The agency's "field communications officers" inform "local populations of the work that the American people are funding in support of advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives," USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said in a statement to the Examiner. They "also help to complement USAID's broader efforts to inform the American public and U.S. Congress about the goals and results of U.S. development assistance."

USAID has had someone doing that job in Uganda before, as well as in other countries like it, he said.

Editor's note: Judicial Watch is representing the Washington Examiner in the newspaper's federal lawsuit seeking access to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau records under FOIA.

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Kelly Cohen

Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner

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