Despite the prevalence of advertisement in social media (the ability to advertise on social media is basically why social media exists), the Environmental Protection Agency was recently found in violation of federal law for using social media to raise support for a potential law regarding protecting streams and surface waters.
A decades-old battle has always raged between internet users’ right to free speech and the rights of victims of libel, slander, and other forms of public shaming. Around 2000, U.S. courts accepted “cybersmear” as an offense worthy of claiming reparations. In the case, cybersmear was considered to be any disparaging statement in which there couldn’t be found a single grain of truth, not even in the realm of opinion.
For example, if someone posted on Twitter than a politician was incompetent, that would be seen as free speech. If someone posted that a politician was a convicted felon and that weren’t true, the statement would be considered unprotected.
One would think that Trump’s allegations regarding Obama’s and Ted Cruz’s citizenship would be considered some form of cybersmear considering this definition, but perhaps pointing this out hasn’t been seen as politically fruitful.
So here’s where the EPA Comes in: Just one month ago, EPA spokesperson Liz Purchia wrote and posted a blog on the EPA website defending the agency’s use of GSA-approved Thunderclap social media platform. She claimed the EPA used the platform “to get the word out about our historic Clean Water Rule: a law to better protect the streams and wetlands that are the foundation of our nation’s water resources.”
The page on Thunderclap apparently included the EPA logo and a byline stating: “Clean Water is important to me. I support EPA’s efforts to protect it for me health, my family, and my community.”
The page was “linked to an EPA website with information about the rule. We shared this page with all of our stakeholders- no matter what sector, geographic location, or perspective- with the goal of catalyzing our public engagement process, and getting people excited about the importance of clean water,” explained Purchia.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a Republican-led investigative arm of Congress, took issue with the Thunderclap post around this time last year. The agency had been requested to investigate the EPA’s use of social media (Thunderclap in particular) by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The Committee’s chairman, Sen. James M Inhofe of Oklahoma, requested that the GAO tailor its inquiry to examine “whether EPA’s activities constituted prohibited covert propaganda or publicity.”
Upon GAO’s submittal of its subsequent 26-page report, Inhofe had this to say:
“GAO’s finding confirms what I have long suspected, that the EPA will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda… We conclude that the EPA’s use of Thunderclap constitutes covert propaganda, in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition… We conclude that the EPA violated the anti-lobbying provisions contained in appropriations acts for FY 2015 when it obligated and expended funds in connection with establishing the hyperlinks to the webpages for environmental action groups.”
“Because EPA obligated and expended appropriated funds in violation of specific prohibitions, we also conclude that EPA violated the Antideficiency Act, 31 U.S.C. § 1341(a)(1)(A), as the agency’s appropriations were not available for these prohibited purposes.”
The issue seems to be more political than legal in nature, but one can assume that these issues are likely to bring about some kind of change in how government agencies spread the word about their causes in this social media age; either it will be officially unbridled, or agencies will have to real it in.