Government, accountability, and “covert propaganda,” sort of; Star Wars & the candidates; and more.

  • Government as its own worst enemy: The Government Accountability Office has found that the EPA engaged in “covert propaganda” when it rolled out a social media campaign on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Thunderclap to battle public opposition to its clean water rule, Eric Lipton and Michael Shear report for the New York Times front page. While government agencies are allowed to promote their policies as long as their role in doing so is disclosed, the GAO found that using Thunderclap violated the law because as the promoted Thunderclap message spread online across Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, people receiving wouldn’t have known it came from the EPA. “I can guarantee you that general counsels across the federal government are reading this report,” Michael Eric Hertz, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, commented. And that’s not a good thing for everyone who wants government to open up more by using social media.
  • The GAO says (on page 13 of its letter to Senator Jim Inhofe, who requested its investigation into the EPA) the problem with how the agency used Thunderclap is that “While EPA’s role was transparent to supporters who joined the campaign [by signing up for the Thunderclap], this does not constitute disclosure to the 1.8 million people potentially reached by the Thunderclap. To those people, it appeared that their friend independently shared a message of his or her support for EPA and clean water.” This is a truly odd way to think about how information spreads today thanks to the online public sphere: back in pre-internet days, if the Surgeon General said smoking was dangerous to your health, and then some random person used that same phrase in a newspaper story or a conversation over the office water cooler, no one thought that was “covert propaganda.” It was just the effect of an idea spreading, one that happened to come from an authoritative government source.
  • The GAO also slammed the EPA for a blog post about the impact of clean water on surfers and brewers by a communications staffer that including links to two advocacy organizations (the NRDC and the Surfrider Foundation) who were themselves supportive of the clean water rule. Both of those third-party sites included calls to “take action,” including buttons that would take a user through the process of contacting Congress, leading the GAO to conclude that the EPA had violated anti-lobbying provisions of relevant legislation.
  • Both of these rulings by the GAO are likely to chill government communications offices and cause them to pull back from engaging in the online public sphere. Let’s hear it for nitpicky government lawyers. It’s worth remembering that back in 2008, when questions arose about the Department of Defense’s years-long plying of retired military officers with special conference calls, meetings, paid travel and privileged access to senior Pentagon officials, all in service of helping to generate favorable news coverage of the Bush administration’s war efforts, the GAO found that there was no evidence of any “covert” propaganda effort, since the Pentagon didn’t specifically contract with or pay those retired officers for positive commentary. (The fact that many of these same ex-officers were simultaneously employed by major defense contractors as lobbyists was deemed beyond the scope of the GAO’s investigation, as was the fact that the Pentagon spent millions to carefully track what they said to media outlets.)
  • So, just to be clear: if a government agency gets Americans to voluntarily share its message on social media and doesn’t disclose in every instance of that message’s appearance that it came from the agency, that’s “covert propaganda” according to the Government Accounting Office. But if a government agency gets Americans to voluntarily share its message in news media and doesn’t disclose in every instance that they wined and dined these Americans, who they handpicked because they knew they already shared the agency’s point of view, that’s…just fine.
  • While we’re pissed off at government, department of: The Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle has posted an angry open letter to the National Credit Union Administration, announcing the voluntary liquidation of his Internet Credit Union project, and it’s quite a doozy.
  • Tech and the presidential: It will be interesting to see how the presidential candidates try to insinuate themselves into this week’s big cultural event, the release of the new Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens.” Already, Ted Cruz is calling on users of his mobile engagement app to step up their volunteering in the hopes of winning tickets to see the film opening weekend. Cruz tells ABC News, “I grew up on Star Wars. I collected all the Star Wars action figures, I had them all in a Darth Vader carrying case and with my friends we would play and fight them back and forth. I had a giant millennium falcon.”
  • By the way, now that we know that everything the Cruz campaign does is shaped by behavioral scientists testing the effects of different messages on targeted audiences, it becomes possible to read his campaign moves in a whole new way. Call it reverse engineering of data targeting. Thus, last week’s New York Times story by Matt Flegenheimer about Cruz’s efforts in Iowa to Make Friends with Ordinary People becomes more understandable. As Flegenheimer reported, “While many candidates stick to their stump speech script, a Cruz performance can appear obsessively calibrated, down to the dramatic pauses deployed identically from event to event. He is folksy by memorization, ticking off tales of college football woe or a drawling West Texas farmer with the precision of mass repetition.”
  • This Des Moines Register story by Jennifer Jacobs suggests that Donald Trump’s ground game in the state may be faltering, though it is using the Ground Game 2 mobile canvassing app.