EPA's social media campaign deemed propaganda: Where's the line?

Congress has deemed the EPA's efforts to promote public awareness of a controversial water ruling to be illegal activist propaganda, as the nuance of social media can blur the lines around traditional government communication.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP/File
Algae is seen near the City of Toledo water intake crib in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio, Aug. 3, 2014. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to deal with the growing problem of toxic algae in lakes and rivers will include setting new health guidelines for swimmers and kayakers. Agency officials say they will focus on protecting people who are likely to swallow water during recreational activities.

The Environmental Protection Agency's social media campaign encouraging voters to weigh in on a controversial proposal amounted to "covert propaganda" and "grassroots lobbying" that federal agencies cannot legally conduct, according to a total 26-page report released on Monday by Congress's Government Accountability Office.

The government's foray into social media is relatively recent, so agencies have not fully explored the line between informing citizens and engaging in activist promotion enough to determine the public's tolerance for both.

The EPA said in a statement its use of social media aligned with the practice of most organizations.

"We maintain that using social media to educate the public about our work is an integral part of our mission," read an EPA statement about the report according to the Associated Press. "We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities."

The Congressional report by the Government Accountability Office condemned the EPA for using social media to advertise a highly controversial rule about water in the United States, which federal courts have put on hold to consider lawsuits by 31 states against it. The rule would expand the EPA's regulatory abilities to 60 percent of US surface water, including temporary streams that run across private property, as Patrik Jonsson reported for The Christian Science Monitor:

The Obama administration said in May that only serious polluters would have anything to lose under the new rules. But celebrations of Friday’s ruling by 31 states that sued the EPA underscores how political the nexus between federal regulations and private property rights has been in the Obama era. The battle with the EPA has emerged as an emotional symbol of general government overreach.

Republicans and some Democrats from rural areas have said the EPA used its government-owned social media accounts to promote its environmentalist agenda in a campaign reaching 1.8 million members of the public.

"[The] EPA will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda," Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R) said, according to the AP.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said the social media accounts provided links to educational information, as well as deadlines and how-to guides on submitting comments to the public record.

"At no point did EPA encourage the public to contact Congress or any state legislature," she said, according to the AP.

Linking, though, is part of why the Congressional report faulted the EPA. In one campaign, an EPA official wrote in a blog post that as a beer consumer and surfer he supports a controversial EPA rule because he does not "want to get sick from pollution." The official linked the phrase to a webpage for the Surfrider Foundation, an advocacy organization in California.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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