Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The unusual story of how EPA broke the law using Twitter

One could be forgiven for thinking the Environmental Protection Agency might be staffed by a bunch of do-gooder policy wonks with little time for tweets, tags, shares, or the like. But in 2015, not to post is not to be heard, and even EPA has doubled-down on social media when it comes to spreading the word. This approach has escalated to such a degree that on Monday the agency was found guilty by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of engaging in “covert propaganda” on social platforms. In an effort to build momentum behind the Clean Water Rule—a new policy that the Obama administration sees as necessary to protect the country’s waterways, wetlands and drinking water—EPA was found to have twice overstepped a federal law prohibiting federal agencies from promoting or lobbying for their own actions. While government agencies like EPA are allowed to promote policies, they cannot do so in a “covert” fashion. They are also not allowed to use federal resources to conduct grassroots-style lobbying that urges the public to contact Congress regarding legislation.  The finding, which is being disputed by EPA, asserts in one case that the agency used a social media-amplifying network called Thunderclap to get its message in support of the CWR out to some 1.8 million people without always making it clear where the message originated. The Thunderclap message said, “Clean water is important to me. I support E.P.A.’s efforts to protect it for my health, my family and my community.” While on the Thunderclap page it says the message is “by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” this was not always conveyed upon dissemination, which included platforms like Twitter. “Covert propaganda refers to communications that fail to disclose the agency’s role as the source of information,” states the GAO report, which goes on to explain that on some occasions when shared by Thunderclap, EPA was not identified as the author. Thus, covert propaganda. The second instance of legal overstep concerns a blog post by one of EPA’s public affairs officers. The post, in which Travis Loop says he wants clean water for his children as well as for his beer, contained a link button to advocacy groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Surfrider Foundation, that called on people to contact members of congress in support of the CWR. The GAO found that by “hyperlinking to these webpages, EPA appealed to the public to contact Congress in opposition to pending legislation in violation of the grassroots lobbying prohibition.”...more

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