Congress exposes repeated violations of Smith-Mundt Act in USAGM agency’s Facebook ads targeting Americans

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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, had been warned earlier about these violations but ignored these warnings until The New York Times published an expose earlier this year.

Lansing and VOA Director Amanda Bennett had been appointed to their position in 2015 and 2016 respectively and have not been replaced by the Trump administration. President Trump has nominated Michael Pack to be the new USAGM CEO but his nomination has not been yet completed the confirmation process in the Senate.

It appears that the House Foreign Affairs Committee staff HFAC are finally focusing on the USAGM bureaucracy’s semantics regarding their questionable practices and audience claims such as “impressions” and “clicks.” Use of these misleading words is key to understanding the agency’s inflated audience claims. But even with illegal advertising targeting Americans, real audience engagement on many of VOA’s websites — as opposed to meaningless “likes” — are still dismal.

The committee has asked for “All data relating to the grantees and VOA’s social media advertising from January 2016 to present, to include copies of all ads as well as all corresponding data – including number of impressions and clicks, amount spent, and ad targeting information that details geolocation, gender, interests, language,…”

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.

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