BBG Watch Commentary
As reported by The Washington Post and others, Facebook told congressional investigators Wednesday that it sold ads totaling $100,000 during the U.S. presidential campaign to a Russian company, believed to be pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda. According to media reports, the Russian company was seeking to target U.S. voters.
$100,000 may be a drop in the bucket considering millions of dollars spent on political advertising by Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, but propaganda and disinformation by a foreign government trying to obscure its role by using intermediaries is at least highly unethical and may in fact violate some election campaign laws and regulations. Such activities may also violate internal policies of companies such as Facebook. (It is interesting to read in the Washington Post article how a for-profit private company, which Facebook is, tried to minimize its responsibility in this incident.) In any democracy, such activities by outside governments who happen to be undemocratic and hostile toward the United States is worrisome. But what could be even worse and more worrisome are activities by U.S. federal government officials and employees trying to influence U.S. vote using U.S. taxpayers’ money when they should be countering hostile propaganda from countries such as Russia or China.
Facebook and The Washington Post did not say whether any U.S. laws have been broken by Russia or by Facebook in placing of such ads in the United States by foreign entities, or in allowing their placement. Some lawyers may argue that technically it is not against U.S. law to post political content online targeting certain groups of Americans. What would, however, be illegal under existing U.S. laws are activities by U.S. taxpayer-funded and U.S. government-run Voice of America (VOA) to influence U.S. public opinion.
Congress allows the Voice of America to influence public opinion abroad, including countries without free media or countries with highly restricted media such as Russia. Most Americans would agree that this activity by the U.S. government is in the national interest of the United States. Congress appropriates money to that end, but the U.S. law does not allow VOA, which is a federal government-run entity, to target Americans. U.S. lawmakers believe that the executive branch of the U.S. government has no business propagandizing to its own citizens. Under the U.S. constitutional system, the job of providing news to Americans belongs to private, mostly commercial media, which is protected from government interference in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Foreign media outlets can also operate freely in the United States, although there are some restrictions on foreign ownership of U.S. media. VOA has never been and is not now a private media company. It is an entity of the U.S. government regulated and restricted in its media activities by the U.S. law. The VOA Charter describes what VOA is required to do and what it cannot do. These regulations and restrictions do not apply to private media outlets in the United States because, if they did, they would be unconstitutional. They are not unconstitutional in VOA’s case because VOA is a U.S. government-run operation funded entirely by U.S. taxpayers and subject to a special law.
In 2013, Congress relaxed some legislative restrictions on the domestic distribution of Voice of America programs. It retained, however, a general prohibition against VOA inserting itself into political debates in the United States, which the current Obama administration-era VOA and BBG management has ignored in an unprecedented fashion never before seen in VOA’s long history. Section 501 of the Smith-Mundt Act was amended in 2013 allowing the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of VOA, to make program materials available domestically in the United States. This limited permission, however, allowed sharing of program content only upon request, and only when it is consistent with all statutory authorities, prohibitions, principles, and standards.
Anything that the Voice of America posts online for its foreign audiences can, in any case, be seen in the United States. However, VOA managers and employees are not allowed to take any direct actions to encourage or promote U.S. domestic use of their programs. The most important prohibition on the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America is the one restricting VOA from actively trying to influence U.S. public opinion in any form. It makes sense that U.S. government employees, whose salaries are paid by all U.S. taxpayers, should not engage in partisan politicking in programs which are produced also with taxpayers’ money. U.S. commercial media can do this at its own expense, but for obvious reasons VOA cannot.
Section 208 “Clarification on domestic distribution of program material” of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, Public Law 112-239, clearly states:
“No funds authorized to be appropriated to the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States.”
The latest Facebook-Russia revelation raises an interesting question: did the Voice of America violate U.S. laws by promoting its own one-sided anti-Donald Trump news reports and in one case anti-Bernie Sanders commentary on Facebook? Possible violations would include such U.S. taxpayer-funded U.S. government-overseen and run activities as the VOA Ukrainian Service-produced video of Hollywood actor Robert DeNiro who delivered an anti-Trump rant during the 2016 presidential campaign. The VOA video reposted below includes a commentary by our watch dog website on how it violated the VOA Charter Public Law 94-350.
The VOA video was subsequently removed, but only after multiple protests. Before it was removed, it was seen by many Ukrainian American voters. It could have had an impact on their 2016 U.S. presidential vote.
It appears from internal VOA statistics that about 50% of VOA English-language web traffic comes from the U.S., but some foreign language VOA sites also draw a substantial portion of their web traffic from foreign-speaking U.S. voters who may be influenced by one-sided and biased Voice of America online content paid for by U.S. taxpayers. These VOA programs are produced largely by U.S. federal government employees who are required by law to remain objective and nonpartisan in their journalistic VOA activities. While some may argue that foreign-bought Facebook ads, such as those paid by Russia, may not be technically illegal, deliberate attempts to influence U.S. public opinion by taxpayer-funded VOA definitely would be illegal because there is a law against it.
Even without additional Facebook ads targeting an audience in the United States, posting online one-sided political attack pieces by the Voice of America would already be illegal because such program content violates the VOA Charter. If these attack pieces happen to influence U.S. public opinion because of any kind of targeting or advertising paid by the Voice of America using tax dollars or even paid by individual VOA journalists, more U.S. laws may have been broken.
There is already plenty of evidence that the Voice of America violated its Charter and U.S. law multiple times during the 2016 presidential election campaign and beyond by ignoring the Charter’s provisions for accuracy, balance and comprehensiveness in its reporting on U.S. domestic politics.
As pro-Bernie Sanders journalist Dan Wright wrote in 2016 in a ShadowProof article: “As broad as that [Voice of America] mandate may seem, electioneering and hit pieces on US citizens obviously fall outside those parameters. VOA does not have the right to advocate for a particular candidate or even to attack one. That is not within its charter, nor should any US citizen have to subsidize their own defamation.”
One-sided coverage and politically biased coverage could be found throughout the Voice of America during the 2016 political campaign. In the VOA Ukrainian Service-produced video, in which VOA offered no counter or response, Donald Trump was called “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid.” There was a defense of Trump by another Hollywood actor, but VOA did not use it. In another incident, for the first time in VOA’s history, a VOA reporter used an F-word in a public social media forum to condemn a presidential candidate. The VOA reporter called Trump “F*ckface Von Clownstick.” The same VOA reporter also posted on a personal but publicly accessible Facebook page a meme showing Donald Trump’s face with a Nazi swastika and another meme depicting Mr. Trump as a sexual organ. Despite of this overwhelming evidence, Obama-era appointed BBG CEO John Lansing told NPR: “we have the greatest respect for whoever is the President.” VOA director Amanda Bennett, another Obama-era appointee, told the VOA staff that she is “proud of our mission to provide the highest standard of objective, reliable, independent news and information.” “I am proud of the work you all do every day,” Amanda Bennett told VOA journalists.
Outside critics do not agree. Commentator Sierra Rayne writing in American Thinker in May 2016 reported that “[o]ne of VOA’s flagship programs is Issues in the News, where “[p]rominent Washington correspondents discuss topics making headlines around the world,” has two American journalists who should be balancing one another but who are both strong critics of Donald Trump. “To say the coverage and discussion of Trump has been less than flattering would be an understatement,” Sierra Rayne wrote.
With this background and as a follow-up to the latest Facebook-Russia revelation, U.S. law enforcement agencies and the Congress should investigate Voice of America’s Facebook activities to see if any U.S. laws might have been broken by politically-biased managers and journalists working for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Here are some of the questions that should be answered:
Do any BBG and VOA officials conduct corporate business activities or have family investments in countries such as Russia or China? We know that some of them do.
Did any of them or their subordinates approve Facebook ads which would target Americans?
Did any individual VOA reporters try to boost their dismal social media engagement statistics by buying Facebook boost ads targeting Americans during the 2016 presidential election campaign, as well as now?
How much of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars did VOA and other BBG entities spend on Facebook ads?
Most experts agree that such Facebook ads are useless in creating meaningful audience engagement, although they may produce “likes” without readers actually looking at the content or returning to the page.
Answers to these questions are just as important, if not more important than knowing whether Vladimir Putin tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, because we already know that he did. How effective his interference was is less clear.
Russian leaders will likely continue to pursue their political objectives abroad through any means, legal or illegal, as long as they think that hoped-for political gains would be greater than any negative consequences and costs. We can only try to make their efforts more difficult and more costly, but the dysfunctional and “practically defunct” (Hillary Clinton’s description in 2013) Broadcasting Board of Governors has proven itself again and again to be completely incapable and ineffective in countering Russian propaganda.
The BBG must be reformed. To be effective, it must become again nonpartisan and have the maximum support of the American people. The bipartisan bill H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act to improve the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters, (introduced on May 14, 2015 by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY)) was a step in the right direction but, unfortunately, it was never fully implemented when Congress passed Technical Amendments To The International Broadcasting Act National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2017. Congress must make sure in continuing to reform the BBG that U.S. government officials and VOA employees are not allowed to spend taxpayers’ money in violation of U.S. laws to pursue their personal partisan political agenda in the United States. They should also not be allowed, as some of them are now, to pursue private or corporate business interests in countries hostile to the United States.
Gerald R. Ford
President of the United States of America
Signed July 12, 1976
Public Law 94-350