The Abbott government is using a research company to trawl through millions of Australian social media posts to advise it on its immigration policies.
The scrutiny of Twitter, Facebook and blogs is part of $4.3 million worth of research contracts commissioned by the federal government in its first five months of office.
Cubit Media Research has two contracts with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to deliver ''media positioning analysis''.
Founder and chief executive Warren Weeks said it could track 24 million social media ''pieces'' an hour, to gauge Australians' perceptions of different policy areas. ''People hire Cubit and people like us because we have the capacity to monitor millions of pieces a day,'' he said. ''What's the mood? What's the tone?''
Other market research firms commissioned by the government would not speak about their work, citing confidentiality.
Among contracts the government has commissioned from dozens of market research agencies are $38,500 to research a possible West Australian Senate election, $20,400 to monitor social media for the Department of Communications and $67,300 to track and monitor the government's ''no boat no visa'' campaign.
Governments of both persuasions spend millions on market research. A broad category of tenders includes the Department of Communications researching the cyber bullying of children, subscriptions to industry publications and property research.
Labor's Senate leader Penny Wong questioned the government's priorities, saying it ''refused to invest in jobs'' but had written a ''blank cheque'' for market research. ''This expenditure is another example of the Abbott government's distorted priorities,'' Senator Wong said.
But the Coalition maintains it has already cut the market research bill incurred by government departments by more than half. Mr Weeks said his company did a lot of work with the previous Labor government, ''so this is an extension of that''.
His company's software allowed it to process massive volumes of internet noise from the online sites of mainstream media, to Facebook, blogs, Twitter and broadcasts.
Mr Weeks would not speak about the findings of his research, citing commercial confidentiality, but said it could inform policy making. ''The antidote to a stupid knee-jerk reaction, or something which potentially can cost … taxpayers a fortune, or it can just be wrong … is to actually know what's being said,'' he said.
Clarification: The headline on an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect figure for the amount being spent surveying social media.