The EPA’s “Covert Propaganda” Campaign Explained

The GAO has blown the whistle on the EPA:

The Environmental Protection Agency engaged in “covert propaganda” and violated federal law when it blitzed social media to urge the public to back an Obama administration rule intended to better protect the nation’s streams and surface waters, congressional auditors have concluded….Federal laws prohibit agencies from engaging in lobbying and propaganda.

That sounds bad. What on earth did the EPA do? Tap into people’s phones? Beam subliminal messages through their TV sets? Conduct giant rallies in Nuremburg?

After months of investigation, it turns out that the GAO identified a grand total of two problems. One concerns a public affairs guy who wrote a blog post that linked to another blog post about surfing which in turn linked to yet another page which urged people to call their congressional rep. Apparently this counts as “lobbying Congress.” It’s obviously pretty trivial, though.

The second violation is more interesting. As part of a social media campaign, the EPA sent out the following message on Thunderclap: “Clean water is important to me. I support EPA’s efforts to protect it for my health, my family and my community.” Thunderclap is sort of like Kickstarter for messages: you set a goal for people to resend your message, and if you reach your goal then the message is sent out at the same time by everyone who signed up.

So what’s the problem? Well, the GAO acknowledges that “The page was visibly attributed to EPA, as it displayed the agency’s profile photo and, under the title, ‘by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.'” But—when Thunderclap users resent the message, it might not have been clear that it was originally created by the EPA. Thus it’s “covert” propaganda.

I have a hard time getting too exercised by this, but I guess it’s good for federal agencies to know the limits of social media promotion. Just keep this in mind when you start hearing dark stories about how the EPA engaged in lobbying and propaganda. These two things are what that means. Not exactly the dark arts practiced by Joseph Goebbels.