BBG Watch Commentary
The review by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and his committee staff found that insufficient management and devolved operating structures for digital advertising at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), previously called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), allowed for repeated violations of the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits domestic dissemination of content developed by the State Department and U.S.-funded entities.
An examination of six VOA language services found at least 860 Smith-Mundt violations over a two-year period. Violations continued even after the New York Times report exposing them, and the launch of a USAGM task force designed to address the issue.
USAGM CEO, John F. Lansing and Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, both of them appointed to their positions during the Obama administration, had been warned earlier about these violations but ignored these warnings and took no effective action to stop violations until The New York Times published an expose earlier this year.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee found mixed results in terms of networks effectively reaching these self-identified target audiences. As an example, take the case of VOA Persian:
By most all accounts, VOA Persian has been successful. USAGM reports that VOA Persian hosts the largest digital audience for website activity at VOA, and is the third and fourth most popular VOA language service on Facebook and Instagram.
The service is also taking advantage of geo-targeting tools to reach specific audiences in priority Middle East countries for the United States. In some cases, it’s using geographic coordinates.
Still, there is room for improvement. VOA Persian identified its target audience as “Persian-speaking urban, educated demographic in major cities in Iran and neighboring countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey) and major Iranian diaspora centers (France, Great Britain, Germany). It has defined a “priority audience” as “18 to 35 year-old Persian speakers in Iran and Persian Gulf.” This is “important because 70 percent of Iranian population is under 35.”
Yet in the committee’s review of more than 4,000 VOA Persian Facebook ads over a two-year period, VOA Persian consistently targeted audiences ranging 13 to 65 years of age. Not one ad was targeted specifically to the 18-35 year-old range identified by VOA Persian as its “priority audience.”
The committee also identified more than 260 Smith-Mundt violations by VOA Persian since 2016. These illegal ads accounted for roughly six percent VOA Persian’s total output. Alarmingly, Smith-Mundt violations at VOA Persian continued after the July 19, 2018 New York Times report and increased efforts by USAGM to ensure U.S. international broadcaster compliance with the law. See attachments for a spreadsheet breaking out all VOA Persian Facebook ads from a seven-day period (August 27 – September 3, 2018). Of the 18 ads launched in the period, 11 wrongfully targeted U.S. audiences . USAGM reports that the staffer who committed these violations has been permanently removed from these duties.
 See Attachment III for spreadsheet detailing VOA Persian Facebook ads from August 27, 2018 through September 3, 2018.
While the report says that by most accounts, VOA Persian has been successful in its digital outreach, it may be cause for additional concern because an independent study conducted in 2017 at the request of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) [the former name of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM)] has found that the service has been spreading propaganda of the Iranian regime and its reporting has been highly biased.
The American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) study made many devastating conclusions. We list only a few. To see the full study, click on any of the three images.
“This dynamic, on the whole, perpetuated to audiences the appearance of pro-regime propaganda, rather than objective reporting, on the part of both the VOA and Farda.”
AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY COUNCIL U.S. PERSIAN MEDIA STUDY
Final Synthesis Report
October 6, 2017
SEE: December 2018 Oversight Investigation, U.S. Int’l Broadcasting in the Digital Age: Getting Advertising Right, Report by Chairman Edward R. Royce
ALSO SEE: USAGM CEO John Lansing ignored early warnings of ads targeting Americans, BBG Watch, December 21, 2018