The Government spent more than $230,000 over two years on monitoring social media comments to ensure COVID-19 public health messages were getting through to the public, Labour's David Parker says.
It was revealed last month that data insight company Annalect has been surveying Kiwis' public social media comments across a number of online platforms over the past two years on topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A RNZ report at the time said key themes were identified across the comments, with Annalect reporting on Kiwis' sentiment towards different policies and matters regarding the pandemic, such as the wait for test results and MIQ. It's reportedly been discontinued, but began in April 2020.
It's not unusual for government departments or political parties to hold focus groups or poll the public to understand the reaction or understanding of a policy or action, but ACT's taken issue with the Government spending. The party revealed on Thursday that the monitoring cost more than $234,000.
"New Zealanders are doing it tough through this cost of living crisis. While Kiwi families are tightening their belts, it’s clear the Government isn’t doing the same," leader David Seymour said.
"We have been told that the Jacinda Ardern 'followed the science' through the COVID pandemic but, as time goes on, we learn it was actually the political science."
Parker, a Labour minister, told AM on Friday morning that he hasn't seen the reports, but understands they were important to seeing whether messages were getting through to the public, like that people should stay in their bubble, wash their hands and line up for vaccinations.
"You can't just go through newspapers now and see what letters to the editor are about, whether people have got the wrong end of the stick. You do have to monitor the main media channel these days, which is social media."
Considering New Zealand was spending around $20 billion on wage subsidies, among other measures to combat COVID-19 and keep the economy going, Parker said it was important to make sure "messages were getting through so that we could help save lives - which we have - and the economy".
He believes the spending, which equates to around $2000 a week over two years, was "completely justifiable, absolutely responsible and necessary".
The minister gave the example of checking to see whether people on social media had realised they were eligible for their next vaccination.
National's deputy leader Nicola Willis said it had a bit of a "big brother feel about it".
"When people post on social media, I don't think they necessarily expect the Government will be analysing that and deciding policy on the basis of it."
She was asked if National has done anything similar, like hold focus groups.
"We do research to understand what voters are thinking and saying. I actually think that's a good thing," Willis replied.
"The question I'd have about this is, are people right to think that the Government was basing all of its COVID-19 decisions on the science, or was this actually feeding in as a major factor? Because we were told it was all about the science."
Parker said the Government didn't form policy based on the comments.
"But you do need to check that people are getting the messages that we all need to hear in order to keep each other safe. If those messages aren't getting through, then the words need to change."