BBG Watch Commentary
As accusations that Russia placed political ads on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. election campaign are being reported by the New York Times and other media outlets, and were later denied by the Russian government and in RT reports, poorly managed U.S. federal employees of the taxpayer-funded ($221 million in FY 2017) Voice of America (VOA) did place U.S. political video ads on Facebook and on other online and broadcast platforms during the same time. VOA did not take money from Russia or any foreign entity to enhance these political ads and place them on Facebook. The Voice of America did it at U.S. taxpayers’ expense in violation of the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law. These political ads posted by VOA were not news reports since they did not provide in the same space and at the same time any context, countervailing balance or response from the U.S. politicians being attacked.
In 2016, the Voice of America reposted on Facebook a number of political ads created by others and added to them foreign language subtitles. Since much of VOA content is seen on the Internet in the United States by U.S. citizens, these one-sided VOA-enhanced political ads could have had an impact on the vote in some U.S. ethnic communities, particularly among Russian-Americans and Ukrainian-Americans. Exact impact of either Russian-paid Facebook ads or U.S. taxpayer-paid Voice of America political ads placed on Facebook by U.S. federal government employees is hard to determine. It is doubtful that they had a significant impact, but U.S. laws may have been broken.
As reported by Newsweek and other media “the Kremlin has denied placing ads on social media in order to sway the result of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” However, if and when foreign countries engage in such practices, it is done surreptitiously by proxies hired and run by secret intelligence services. In the case of the Voice of America, it was done more or less in the open, but these actions of VOA’s federal managers and employees have not been widely reported by mainstream media.
U.S. intelligence services are convinced that the Russian government had tried to influence the outcome of the U.S. 2016 presidential election. Few doubt that President Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer, would not try to influence American politics, either through Russian state-funded media outlets such as RT or SPUTNIK, or through other means, such as online trolling and placing political ads on Facebook. Voice of America managers and other employees appear to have been driven driven by their political biases and ignorance of the U.S. law regulating VOA activities.
USA Today reported that “Facebook will provide congressional investigators with more than 3,000 ads bought by entities linked to the Russian government to sway the 2016 U.S. election, a capitulation to Washington lawmakers that have criticized the social network’s role in Russian election meddling.”
In the case of the Voice of America, which is entirely funded by U.S. taxpayers and managed by the federal agency of the Broadcasting Board of Governor with an even higher budget ($740 million in FY 2017 including VOA), there is clear evidence that some of VOA’s federal employees used taxpayers’ money and U.S. government resources to translate entire political ads into foreign languages and place them on Facebook and other online platforms. This was reported at the time by our BBG Watch watch dog site, which is run by former and current VOA and BBG employees critical of the agency’s management. But this activity was largely ignored by mainstream media until after the election when the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed written by a former VOA director Robert Reilly who headed VOA during the George W. Bush presidency.
Bob Reilly wrote in his Wall Street Journal op-ed that “he saw the Robert De Niro video that Voice of America’s Ukrainian service posted online last October, adding subtitles and VOA’s logo,” in which “Mr. De Niro unloads about Mr. Trump: ‘He’s so blatantly stupid; he’s a punk; he’s a dog; he’s a pig; he’s a con’—and so forth.”
Reilly reported that “No context was provided for this rant, and the Ukrainian service took it down after being criticized.”
Reilly was not referencing in his Wall Street Journal op-ed any current BBG officials or their recent comments, although he did quote a 2008 comment by a BBG executive who is still with the agency.
“One doesn’t have to be a Trump supporter to ask why a taxpayer-funded news service, whose job is to tell America’s story to the world, would do this,” Reilly wrote in reference to the VOA Ukrainian service De Niro video.
Current BBG CEO John Lansing does not seem to be concerned. He told NPR’s Morning Edition that “It’s our job is to report all sides of a story and we have the greatest respect for whoever is the President, and their point of view is something that’s newsworthy and we report that.” Both he and VOA director Amanda Bennett are Obama-era appointees. Both are still in charge of respectively the BBG and the VOA. Lansing is Bennett’s immediate boss.
Here is the VOA produced video of De Niro’s original political video with a commentary in subtitles from BBG Watch on how the taxpayer-funded Voice of America violated the VOA Charter.
During the 2016 presidential election campaign,Truth Revolt, a blog of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative think-tank founded by David Horowitz, also reported that the Voice of America, “a taxpayer funded news service” and part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a tax-funded “Government News Agency” is “Campaigning Against Trump.”
Truth Revolt noted that a Voice of America journalist posted on a personal but publicly accessible Facebook page, where the journalist is identified as a VOA writer, reporter and TV producer, “a GIF with a Nazi swastika swinging over Mr. Trump’s face.” The article also noted that VOA’s Russian Service has versioned into Russian and posted online an anti-Donald Trump video produced by the Hillary Clinton campaign without including in the VOA Russian version any balancing content.
In trying to justify this violation of the VOA Charter, a VOA Russian Service editor said that they had posted separately a video produced by Donald Trump’s political campaign, but that would have been yet another violation of the VOA Charter since neither video provided any context, countervailing content, or any kind of response from the opposing side.
A VOA reporter also reposted on Facebook a Donald Trump penis GIF. Another personal Facebook post by a VOA reporter referred to Donald Trump as “F*ckface Von Clownstick.” The personal Facebook page identifies the reporter as working for the Voice of America. As of recently, the anti-Trump post was still available for viewing on Facebook.
While Donald Trump was the primary target of one-sided attacks and biased Voice of America reporting, Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders also found himself on the receiving end of a one-sided and biased commentary on the VOA website. The anti-Sanders commentary posted on the VOA website at U.S. taxpayers’ expense violated the VOA Charter because it was also entirely one-sided.
In one of her attacks on Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton wrote in her book: “I am proud to be a Democrat and I wish Bernie were too.” Interestingly, a Voice of America commentary posted in 2016 accused Sanders of being a supporter of anti-democratic regimes. A pro-Bernie Sanders journalist Dan Wright wrote in June 2016 that “Senator Sanders, according to this story in a US state media outlet [Voice of America], has been a ‘shill’ for undemocratic regimes,”
SEE: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump camps accuse Voice of America of state-media bias, BBG Watch Commentary, June 17, 2016.
The VOA Charter requires VOA news to to accurate, balanced and comprehensive. Many of the VOA reports during the 2016 election campaign failed to meet these standards, and many still do not now.
U.S. law also forbids the Voice of America to try to influence public opinion in the United States. About 50% of VOA’s online traffic for English-language news content comes for the United States, although Congress wants VOA to be focused only on foreign audiences, mostly those who lack access to free media.
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.”
ALSO SEE: Facebook, Russia, Trump – Did Voice of America violate U.S. laws?, BBG Watch, September 7, 2017.
VOA director Amanda Bennett insists that the Voice of America is fighting disinformation with the power of truth.
— VOA Public Relations (@insidevoa) September 22, 2017
As a U.S. journalist Dan Wright pointed out in a commentary in Shadowproof, U.S. citizens should not subsidize their own defamation.
DAN WRIGHT: “As broad as that 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.”