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Canada Contracts AI-Powered Firm to Surveil Vaccine Skeptics on Twitter

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: January 4, 2023
The Government of Canada has hired an English AI company to surveil Twitter's anti-vaccine community.
Ottawa Police at Canada Day 2022 celebrations as an anti-COVID mandate rally was underway. The Public Health Agency of Canada has awarded an England-based AI surveillance firm a contract to track the Twitter anti-vaccine community. (Image: DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The Government of Canada is hiring a contractor specializing in artificial intelligence to collect, log, and surveil the social media communications of those who oppose Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) — and other — vaccines, specifically on Elon Musk’s Twitter.

The initiative is posted to the Government’s official Canada Buys website as the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) seeks to hire a consultant “to analyze the vaccine related conversations on social media” as the bureau prepares “for increased vaccination education, promotion, and outreach.”

A Statement of Capabilities accompanying the purchase order says that PHAC specifically seeks a company possessing an “international framework with individual social media listening tools, that can collect and analyze utilizing AI to output necessary segmented reporting.”


The buy order explains the Justin Trudeau minority government seeks a consultant who has the reach to “analyze vaccine-related conversations, and their participants, on Twitter and social media channels, including Reddit, Blogs, Forums, and News, spanning up to three years of historical data.”

Although the bidding process does not officially end until Jan. 10, the buy order was updated with an Advance Contract Award Notice (ACAN) informing bidders and the public that a champion has already been selected for the task.

The award was given to the PULSAR Platform headquartered in London, England, which describes itself on its website as “the only social listening tool on the market offering both social listening, monitoring, and audience segmentation in one tool.”

PULSAR adds that they have the ability to scrape and surveil “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest, TikTok, [and] Amazon,” and boasts that they’re even able to monitor “premium sources like doctors’ social network Sermo.”

Existing clients listed on the PULSAR website include names as large as the University of Oxford, Discovery Network, Mazda, Unilever, and The Guardian.

In the ACAN, the Government of Canada specifically states PULSAR will be responsible for establishing a “keyword-based social listening tracker to capture social media conversations around vaccinations in Canada” tracing back over the last three years.

In specific, PHAC seeks to target the conversation on Elon Musk’s Twitter as it requires PULSAR to “run the vaccine hesitant Twitter audience through a network-mapping algorithm to assess the sub-communities of each audience and the audience demographics.”

Additionally, the firm is to “map the volume of vaccine hesitancy conversation and specific conversation pillars… identifying what and who is influencing and driving key peaks in conversation.”

A Statement of Work further notes that PULSAR will be required to submit email reports to the agency, which “provide PHAC an actionable understanding of the vaccine conversation landscape online and the conversation participants, while determining a conversation baseline.”

The document reiterates that the agency is not only interested in “what” is driving the conversation, but the “who.”

A case study published on the PULSAR website titled How Public Health Researchers Use Pulsar to Analyze Global Health Topics made it clear that the company’s goal is not just to passively observe.

The study quotes Sam Martin, described as “a digital sociologist and analyst who works using data for her research in digital epidemiology and digital global health” employed to conduct similar vaccine hesitancy work for the UK’s National Health Service.

“These hashtags were infecting the UK like a hashtag virus,” Martin said of topics that challenged the establishment pro-vaccination narrative.

The hashtags Martin refers to were provided in the study and include talking points as benign as:

  • #science;
  • #vaccine; and
  • #covid19.

And more pointed topics such as,

  • #bigpharma;
  • #nuremburgcode;
  • #informedconsent;
  • #novaccinepassports;
  • #1stdonoharm; and
  • #onpoli.

In qualifying why PULSAR was awarded the contract ahead of schedule, PHAC stated that the company has “built a proprietary software platform that has integrated unique AI capabilities such as misinformation detection” in addition to specifically being able to target the “doctors’ social network Sermo.”

The contract extends until March 31 and comes at a cost to taxpayers of $339,000.