Social Media

EPA broke the law with social media push, says GAO

Shutterstock image (by ra2studio): social connection interface.

In a decision published Dec. 14, the Government Accountability Office said the Environmental Protection Agency broke anti-lobbying and propaganda rules during its push to promote Waters of the United States rulemaking in 2014 and 2015.

It's a case that demonstrates the power of social media -- and the pitfalls for agencies that use it without treading carefully.

EPA's hashtag campaigns #DitchtheMyth and #CleanWaterRules complied with federal rules, GAO said, but the agency slipped when it came to multiplatform social media tool Thunderclap and a blog post.

Thunderclap enables a 117-character message to be shared across the Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts of a campaign's supporters in a single swoop.

EPA used the tool with great success in support of the proposed rule, which seeks to define the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act. Rocketing past a 500-supporter goal, EPA was able to reach an estimated 1.8 million people when it posted to 980 supporter accounts on Sept. 29, 2014.

But as part of that powerful approach, GAO said the agency was sending a government agency-sponsored message without identifying it as such.

"EPA engaged in covert propaganda when the agency did not identify EPA's role as the creator of the Thunderclap message to the target audience," GAO ruled.

Another violation occurred in an April 7, 2015, blog post by Travis Loop, communications director for EPA's Office of Water.

In the post, Loop linked to Natural Resources Defense Council and Surfrider Foundation pages that, in turn, contained statements urging readers to contact Congress in support of EPA's rulemaking.

"Both of the external web pages led to appeals to the public to contact Congress in support of the [Waters of the United States] rule, which taken in context, constituted appeals to contact Congress in opposition to pending legislation," GAO auditors wrote. "EPA associated itself with these messages through its decision to include the hyperlinks in its blog post."

Ultimately, GAO determined that the inclusion of the links constituted prohibited "grassroots lobbying."

Deeming the social media blunders a misuse of appropriated funds, GAO said EPA was in violation of the Antideficiency Act. Therefore, the agency should report the violation to the president and Congress and should estimate the financial costs that went into the prohibited activities.

In a statement, EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee said, "We disagree with their assessment, and we will fulfill whatever reporting requirements are necessary. We maintain that using social media to educate the public about our work is an integral part of our mission."

In pre-decision communications with GAO, EPA's legal team had argued that nothing about the social media campaigns was covert and that EPA is not responsible for the political messaging on outside organization websites to which it links. 

But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the lawmaker who requested that GAO investigate the EPA social media blitz in the first place, backed the decision in a statement.

"EPA's illegal attempts to manufacture public support for its Waters of the United States rule and sway congressional opinion regarding legislation to address that rule have undermined the integrity of the rulemaking process and demonstrated how baseless this unprecedented expansion of EPA regulatory authority really is," Inhofe said.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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