‘Covert Propaganda’ in Federal Rulemaking

by Aaron Johnson, Manager of Communications on November 8, 2016 - 7:12am

Has government use of social media turned into covert propaganda? In light of an investigation by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), the answer is yes.

Barack Obama came into office as the “social media president” after effectively using online communications during his campaign. So it’s understandable the president pushed the use of social media within federal agencies, and it makes sense given the increasing reliance by the public. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube have become primary sources of news.

According to a recent GAO report, federal agencies make extensive use of online communications, particularly e-mail, websites, blogs, text messaging and social media.

Dig deeper, however, and the GAO report raises several red flags. Take the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for example. According to GAO, EPA uses social media to keep the public informed about proposed rules and opportunities to participate in public comment periods during the rulemaking process. Yet, Western Energy Alliance’s examination of EPA’s national Twitter feed shows only one tweet so far in 2016 about a public comment period, and it’s simply a re-tweet.

It’s the same story with the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

So far in 2016, Interior’s national Twitter feed has zero posts on public comment periods but lots of amazing pictures of national parks. To some extent promoting the wonderful places we all enjoy visiting makes sense, but not to the exclusion of real issues. Similarly, BLM’s national Twitter account has no tweets on opportunities for the public to comment on how public lands are managed, but lots of #FunFactFriday and #FridayFeeling tweets.

The overabundance of clickbait distorts the public’s view and is a missed opportunity to actually inform on substantive issues like rulemaking. By posting almost exclusively on recreation and conservation, BLM and Interior ignore a huge part of their mission to foster productive uses of non-park, non-wilderness public lands, such as energy development and ranching.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Using social media to increase public support for government makes logical sense to an administration that believes government is always the best solution. However, the mischief goes deeper. EPA got caught using “covert propaganda” to lobby the public to support the highly flawed Waters of the U.S. rule, according to a GAO report in December 2015. This is in violation of law that prevents agencies from engaging in grassroots lobbying to advance their regulatory control.

Furthermore, the number of public affairs employees within the agencies is staggering. GAO documents that 187 PR people work at EPA, with combined salaries over $17.8 million. The Interior Department employs 295 PR people with a combined salary of $28 million. In total, the federal government spends nearly $1 billion annually on public relations and advertising, including contracts to fancy PR firms. When you’re playing with other people’s money, you go for the best spin that money can buy.

Upon the disturbing revelation of the GAO report, Congress used its oversight powers to hold the administration accountable. Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether the EPA knowingly broke the law. The U.S. House Committee on Agriculture held a hearing to question EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy about the matter. The U.S. House passed the Regulatory Integrity Act, which requires greater transparency in online communication of federal agencies and bars agencies from hyping the benefits of proposed regulation and soliciting support.

Despite previous warnings from Congress and GAO, federal agencies continue to use social media as covert propaganda. When kept in the dark, the public has a diminished voice in the regulations that affect everyone and gives agencies more control over American jobs and economic prosperity.

The federal government has proven it’s incapable of doing many things responsibly. Now we can add social media to that list.

**As originally published in The Hill's Congress Blog: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-budget/305245-covert-prop...