Voice of America Russian Service’s illegal targeting of Americans with Facebook ads exposed by Rep. Royce

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.

 

 
And the good news is that VOA’s primary digital arm, VOA newsroom, appears to have avoided Smith-Mundt violations.
 
That said, despite the warnings from VOA management, Smith-Mundt violations at language services continued through September 2018 [4]. VOA claims these violations are unintentional – underscoring the need for greater analysis and review of ad performance. This would likely lead not only to fewer violations, but also to more effective ads.
 
Take the case of VOA Russian [5]. The service exclusively targeted audiences in Washington, D.C. with ads more than 32 times during a two week period in July of 2017. If, as VOA has said, these were unintentional Smith-Mundt violations, they could have been caught by a routine review of ongoing ads. Persistent acts of negligence should not be tolerated.
 
[4]4 See Attachment III for spreadsheet detailing VOA Persian Facebook ads from August 27, 2018 through September 3, 2018.
[5] See Attachment IV for spreadsheet detailing VOA Russian Facebook ads from July 3, 2017 through July 17, 2017.
 

VOA Eurasia Division – Poygraph.info, which was set up to fact check Russian disinformation – identified its target segment for digital media advertising as “digital media consumers.” This [is] embarrassingly thin response. And should be reviewed by management.

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

 

 
 
 

Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 21, 2018
https://go.usa.gov/xEaeS

Chairman Royce Releases U.S. Int’l Broadcasting Oversight Report

Washington, D.C. – House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) today released an oversight report outlining failures in management at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) that led to repeated violations of the Smith-Mundt Act.

This report is the product of a three-month investigation launched after a July New York Times piece exposing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Facebook ads that illegally targeted audiences in the United States. The review by the Chairman and his committee staff found that insufficient management and devolved operating structures for digital advertising at RFE/RL and Voice of America (VOA) 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, and the launch of a USAGM task force designed to address the issue.

I strongly support the USAGM mission of providing objective, accurate and timely news to people in countries where a free press does not exist,” Chairman Roycesaid. “As terrorists and repressive regimes in Russia, Iran and North Korea increasingly weaponize information to undermine our democratic values, the U.S. needs strong, agile and independent-minded international broadcasting to stand up for freedom and truth.

“Reforms to empower a CEO at USAGM have produced progress, but there is still more work to be done. As this report details, failures in management and structure at RFE/RL and VOA produced repeated digital ads that violated U.S. law. Management of digital operations must be strengthened not only to ensure compliance with the law, but to produce more effective digital content.

“I hope the next Chair and Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to work closely with USAGM to hold our broadcasters to the highest professional standards. That is what they want, and what our country needs. We’re faced with a misinformation onslaught, and we’ve got to get this right.”

The report, entitled “U.S. International Broadcasting in the Digital Age: Getting Advertising Right” is available for download HERE.

 
 
 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail