BBG Watch EXCLUSIVE
A Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Office of Public Affairs staffer admitted in emails dated December 8 and December 11, 2015 that the Voice of America spends taxpayers’ money on ads to boost the number of “Likes’ for some of its Facebook posts.
The BBG emails were made available recently to BBG Watch by a source.
BBG OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS STAFFER, DECEMBER 8, 2015: “VOA spends advertising money across roughly 15 languages to run campaigns on multiple platforms. Every campaign is different–a service might “boost” an individual post to get it in front of more users and increase engagement metrics like comments or shares. Other campaigns promote broadcast content in target regions or advertise VOA to people searching specific keywords in search engines.”
BBG OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS STAFFER, DECEMBER 11, 2015: “The total Facebook advertising budget for the entire year for the newsroom (English) is approximately $43,000 – about $119/day.
The ‘Islamic State Targeting Africa’ article was indeed boosted – $372.20 was spent on that advertising.”
$43,000 in Facebook advertising mentioned in the BBG email refers only to VOA English newsroom Facebook ads. It is not known how much VOA spends on Facebook ads for its many foreign language services, but the amount is believed to be substantial.
The BBG apparently has not yet extended the practice of buying “Likes” to VOA’s Twitter accounts in a major way. Since VOA did not place Twitter ads for its tweets or for its correspondents’ tweets during the Clinton-Trump debate, VOA’s dismal performance on Twitter Monday night showed its real social media relevance after years of mismanagement. Meanwhile, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Twitter said that “Monday night’s showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was the most-tweeted debate ever.” “First Presidential Debate Breaks Twitter Record,” by Natalie Jarvey, The Hollywood Reporter, September 26, 2016.
BBG Watch analysis of Voice of America retweets and tweet likes during the Clinton-Trump debate Monday night showed that VOA English newsroom and its correspondents were nowhere near BBC or even Russia’s RT in the number of retweets and likes for their Twitter posts. VOA English News and individual VOA correspondents who posted tweets before and during the first Clinton-Trump debate got at most four, five, seven, rarely 10 or 11 retweets for their Twitter posts, and almost never more than ten Twitter likes — usually only two or three.
A New York Times correspondent got 100 retweets and over 200 likes for one of its tweets in half the time it took VOA correspondents to get 2 or 5.
BBC English tweets were showing hundreds of retweets from the Clinton-Trump debate and sometimes close to 2,000. Numbers of likes for BBC Clinton-Trump tweets were also in the hundreds and for a few over 1,000 and even over 2,000.
Russia RT did not do as well on Twitter during the Clinton-Trump debate as BBC, but it was also far ahead of VOA in the number of retweets and Twitter likes. One RT Clinton-Trump tweet was showing 134 retweets and 158 likes.
READ: Voice of America leagues behind BBC, RT on Twitter during Clinton-Trump debate, BBG Watch, September 27, 2016.
However, VOA got many more “Likes” for some of its Clinton-Trump debate posts on Facebook, apparently due to heavy boosting of these posts through buying ads. The contrast between VOA’s performance on Twitter and Facebook was too enormous to attribute it to any other cause.
VOA also increases its Facebook “Likes” and views with animal videos, usually not even of U.S. origin and not having anything to do with the VOA Charter and BBG’s mission.
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO and Director (since September 2015) John F. Lansing said recently that he has been watching the “exceptional team” during his one year tenure at the federal agency “achieve strong audience growth, give life to exciting new content opportunities, particularly in digital and mobile media, push for industry-leading ways to achieve impact in our programming, as we collectively work to inform, engage and connect with people in support of freedom and democracy.”
The VOA “India Python Swallows Antelope” video has had so far over 220K views.
The practice of paying for Facebook ads is highly controversial, especially for U.S. taxpayer-funded agencies and media entities. The Office of Inspector General has a dim view of U.S. government agencies buying such ads to boost their Facebook posts or to generate largely meaningless “Likes.” In 2013, the OIG criticized the U.S. State Department for buying Facebook “Likes” — a practice which an OIG report said was largely a waste of taxpayers’ money.
As reported by The Washington Post about the State Department’s practice of placing Facebook ads, “The IG found that the number of Facebook users who actually engaged with each page was relatively small, with only about 2 percent “liking,” sharing or commenting on any item within the previous week.”
READ MORE: IG report: State Department spent $630,000 to increase Facebook ‘likes’, By Josh Hicks, The Washington Post, July 3, 2013.
With the Department’s use of social media comes strategic questions of the role, purpose, and limitations of the medium. A consensus is emerging that developing numbers of Facebook followers and Twitter fans may not lead automatically to target audience engagement.
After the 2011 reorganization, the coordinator initiated a push to expand the bureau’s presence on social media and other digital platforms. IIP started or expanded English-language Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and blogs aimed directly at foreign audiences. The bureau also started or expanded online activities in six foreign languages.
The coordinator initiated two campaigns in 2011 and 2012, with the goal of building global outreach platforms for engagement with foreign audiences by increasing the number of fans on IIP’s four thematic Facebook properties, primarily through advertising as well as through some page improvements. The bureau spent about $630,000 on the two campaigns and succeeded in increasing the fans of the English Facebook pages from about 100,000 to more than 2 million for each page. Advertising also helped increase interest in the foreign language pages; by March 2013, they ranged from 68,000 to more than 450,000 fans.
Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as “buying fans” who may have once clicked on an ad or “liked” a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further. Defenders of advertising point to the difficulty of finding a page on Facebook with a general search and the need to use ads to increase visibility.
IIP’s four global thematic English-language Facebook pages had garnered more than 2.5 million fans each by mid-March 2013; the number actually engaging with each page was considerably smaller, with just over 2 percent “liking,” sharing, or commenting on any item within the previous week. Engagement on each posting varied, and most of that interaction was in the form of “likes.” Many postings had fewer than 100 comments or shares; the most popular ones had several hundred.
In September 2012, Facebook changed the way it displays items in its users’ news feeds. If a user does not interact with a site’s postings, after a time these postings will no longer appear in the user’s news feed unless the site buys sponsored story ads to ensure their appearance. This change sharply reduced the value of having large numbers of marginally interested fans and means that IIP must continually spend money on sponsored story ads or else its “reach” statistics will plummet. For example, a posting on cyber censorship in March 2013 reached 234,000 Facebook users on its first day; only about 20,000 would have received the item on their news feed without advertising. An item on “Women and the Web” reached the news feeds of 360,000 people; without advertising, 27,000 would have received it.
After the major advertising campaigns, the coordinator shifted the focus away from increasing total fan numbers and toward engagement, as measured by “likes,” shares, and comments. IIP has targeted the bulk of its sponsored story ads in a way most likely to boost engagement statistics. The bureau uses Facebook’s automated system to place the sponsored story ads into the 25 countries with the largest number of young users and the highest engagement rates, regardless of the item’s content, importance, and relevance to the countries in which the ad appears. However, engagement is a means, not an end. The bureau could reduce spending and increase strategic impact by focusing its advertising not on raising overall fan numbers or general engagement statistics but on accomplishing specific PD goals. This approach would entail tying any general page advertising to the promotion of special information content on high-priority issues as well as manually selecting key items as sponsored stories and advertising them only to relevant countries and audiences. This approach would also be in line with the November 2012 report of the Social Media Working Group, which endorsed “judicious and targeted use of paid advertising,” and telegram 13 State 06411, Social Media Guidance Cable #1: Social Media Advertising, which advocated a “selective use of social media advertising” in a “strategically planned, well-targeted” campaign with preset goals and evaluation. During the inspection, IIP paused its Facebook advertising to assess its sites and goals.
READ MORE: UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE AND THE BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL, Office of Inspections, ISP-I-13-28, Inspection of the Bureau of International Information Programs, May 2013.