Judicial Watch Sues EPA for Records on Agency’s Use of Social Media Platform for Alleged Propaganda
GAO Found EPA’s Use of Thunderclap to Promote Clean Water Rule Violates Prohibition on Propaganda by a Federal Agency
(Washington, DC) — Judicial Watch has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for all records related to the EPA’s use of the Thunderclap social media platform. Judicial Watch filed the lawsuit on June 21 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Judicial Watch vs. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (No. 1:17-cv-01218)).
The suit was filed after EPA failed to respond to a May 3, 2017, FOIA request seeking:
All internal emails or other records concerning project administration, management, or assignment of tasks related to the EPA’s use of the Thunderclap social media platform.
A December 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded the EPA’s use of Thunderclap to send out messages boosting the Waters of the United States rule (also known as the Clean Water Rule) “constitutes covert propaganda” and violates the legal prohibition on propaganda by a federal agency.
The GAO report found that the EPA reached 1.8 million social media users through Thunderclap, which uses a synchronized social media blast to amplify a message on platforms such as Twitter:
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated publicity or propaganda and anti-lobbying provisions contained in appropriations acts with its use of certain social media platforms in association with its “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rulemaking in fiscal years 2014 and 2015. Specifically, EPA violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition though its use of a platform known as Thunderclap that allows a single message to be shared across multiple Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts at the same time. EPA engaged in covert propaganda when the agency did not identify EPA’s role as the creator of the Thunderclap message to the target audience.
The EPA said it sent the message through Thunderclap to clarify what it says was misinformation being spread about the Clean Water Rule. The GAO report, however, said the EPA failed to disclose it was the source of the Thunderclap message.
Federal agencies are permitted to promote polices, but are prohibited from engaging in propaganda, which is defined as covert activity intended to influence the American public. Agencies are also prohibited from using federal resources to conduct grass-roots lobbying to prod the American public to call on Congress to act on pending legislation.
“EPA appealed to the public to contact Congress in opposition to pending legislation in violation of the grass-roots lobbying prohibition,” the GAO said in its report.
“The Obama EPA has a checkered history on transparency and accountability,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “Judicial Watch wants the details on the Obama EPA’s sketchy effort to secretly peddle propaganda to protect its regulatory power grab.”
It was recently reported that the Trump administration is taking action to repeal the Waters of the U.S. rule, “an Obama-era regulation that gave Washington broad powers over streams and other small bodies of water across the country.”