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Five things I’ve learned about how the government used BuzzFeed


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By Chris Hannay (@channay)

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About a year and a half ago, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (now called Global Affairs Canada) tried an experiment: Could it use BuzzFeed to spread the government's messages?

Thanks to newly disclosed e-mails – obtained through an access-to-information request by Derek Strelioff – we now have a peek behind the curtains on how bureaucrats put two of those listicles together.

> 1. It takes a village.

When the lists were first published, a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department made it clear that the government did not pay BuzzFeed to post the articles. The articles were posted on BuzzFeed's Community section, where anyone can create a post. The only cost associated with the articles, he said, was in the staff time to create them.

There may have been a lot of staff time. Though a handful of social media folks appear to be the architects of the posts, as with anything in government, layers of approval were required and dozens of people weighed in, from communications staff to those at missions abroad. "Before I send up, have the Religious Freedom folks vetted the BuzzFeed text for this?" asks one e-mail, sent to 13 other public servants.

(The Globe has written before about the number of bureaucrats it takes to write a tweet.)

> 2. They were counting on Baird.

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Like any good content creator, the department had plans to promote the BuzzFeed article once it was published by sharing it with "influencers" on social media, who could then share it with their networks. One of the top influencers the bureaucracy was banking on was John Baird, a much-followed Conservative cabinet minister on Twitter who was then minding the Foreign Affairs portfolio. A year out of office, Mr. Baird still has more followers than the department.

> 3. Official language requirements.

Providing content in both official languages became a challenge at times. It appears that originally an English post about Iran's crackdown on the Internet was published on BuzzFeed and the French version on a government website before it also found its way to BuzzFeed three weeks later. "We have had a few queries from the CIL on some of our accounts," an Ottawa social media specialist explains to a public servant at the Canadian High Commission in Britain, "and it is clear that whatever is published on social media needs to be available in both official languages."

> 4. Redacted.

Any drafts, edits or suggestions about the text were blacked out under Access to Information exemptions 21(1)(a) and (b), concerning advice about government operations. Did any public servants catch a typo? We'll never know. And e-mails from anyone working in the minister's office – or even anyone talking about something the minister's office said – were also redacted under the same exemption.

> 5. What posts could have come next.

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After a listicle about Vladimir Putin got more than 10,000 page views, the social media team started brainstorming what would come next. "Concept: a buzzfeed detailing the top 10 best/funniest/scariest @ replies we got when launching @canada," one person wrote. "Which Canadian embassy are you?" suggested another. In the end, the team published just one more article on BuzzFeed: "7 Imports and Exports That Make Valentine's Day Awesome."


> Is physician-assisted dying an issue of conscience? The governing Liberals say they will whip the vote on the upcoming legislation, while the Conservatives and NDP say they will allow a free vote.

> Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is suggesting the Liberals may not meet their campaign promise of a balanced budget by 2019. "We've seen with falling oil prices that there is a trajectory that continues to look difficult for Canada," he said.

> "Ladies and gentlemen, the weather here is quite cold, but the relationship between the United Nations and Canada is very, very warm," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in chilly Ottawa yesterday. Mr. Ban travels to Montreal today to give an address at McGill University and meet Mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard. He'll also pay a visit to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN specialized agency.

> A halt has been ordered for all undecided claims from residential school survivors where a technical argument known as an "administrative split" is at issue. A Globe and Mail story last week showed as many as 3,000 survivors had their claims denied because of a technicality.

> Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc has disclosed that he has taken steps to "screen" himself from conflicts of interest with New Brunswick's powerful Irving family.

> The Canadian Press is reporting that Mr. Trudeau will announce a doubling of the Canada Summer Jobs program today.

> Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi says Ottawa will be looking at a new formula for funding that will see the federal government take a greater share than its traditional one-third (with the rest covered by provincial and municipal governments).

> From Brussels, international correspondent Mark MacKinnon looks at Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's reluctance to call the conflict with Islamic State a war.

> National Energy Board CEO Peter Watson says, with his organization's mandate under review by the Liberal government, his team is looking at how to regain lost public trust. "It hasn't been easy for us. I'll admit we have a lot to do to better deal with the conflicts and the challenges we face."

> And in her column Women in Politics, Jane Taber talks to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna about how she has led a challenging portfolio and set aside time for family.


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"The decision to increase the existing level of support to Iraqi Kurdish troops is probably the right one, but it carries short-term benefits in exchange for longer term costs. The Kurds are among the coalition's most reliable partners in fighting IS; in the short-term, they deserve support. Looking farther ahead, however, the wisdom of boosting a sub-state actor with secessionist aspirations plays against Canada's support for a stable and united Iraq. This could also eventually be a source of tension with Turkey, a NATO ally at war with its own Kurdish insurgency." – Thomas Juneau, a former defence department analyst, writing in The Globe and Mail.

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About the Author
Assistant editor, Ottawa

Chris Hannay is assistant editor in The Globe's Ottawa bureau and author of the daily Politics newsletter. Previously, he was The Globe and Mail's digital politics editor, community editor for news and sports (working with social media and digital engagement) and a homepage editor. More


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