These are just a few recent examples of the executive branch using our taxpayers’ money to shape our opinions. Unlike the National Security Agency’s collection of personal data or the excessive use of “secret” buffers to conceal information, this government-produced propaganda receives almost no attention. But that doesn’t mean that this “third dimension” of government information isn’t a problem. America becomes less democratic when the $3 trillion executive branch uses its resources to tilt the debate in its favor.
Of course, a democratic government has an obligation to inform and be transparent. Citizens need to know about government policies and plans. We have a right to know which companies receive government contracts, how to collect insurance benefits and social security payments, and what public education reform will look like. But too often the government uses its information machinery to do more than just inform us of a policy. Sometimes it tries to persuade us to adopt a particular position, no matter how effective it is.
Consider, for example, the Department of Labor’s campaign to raise the minimum wage, a topic about which there is considerable debate. By raising the minimum wage, the The Congressional Budget Office points out, will eliminate some jobs. However, the government devotes a Web page to the subject that proclaims, “See how raising the national minimum wage will benefit American workers.” Americans are asked to tell the Department of Labor why they “support raising the federal minimum wage.” Twitter users may see a video of a mustard scribble spelling out “#RaiseTheWage” on a hot dog, a reference to recent advocacy by interest groups to pay fast food employers more money. The Department of Labor webpage treats the minimum wage increase as an unmitigated good and calls possible job losses a “myth.”
These aggressive communications are neither new nor exceptional. Government agencies have historically made a habit of walking the blurry line between informing the public and making propaganda.
1791 by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton manufacturing report promoted policies aimed at making the nation a trading republic. President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information enlisted 75,000 members of the public to deliver speeches in support of World War I measures such as the Freedom Bonds and Draft, covered the nation with pamphlets and d posters and generally set in motion the modern advertising apparatus that exists. today
Ten years ago, the Government Accountability Office at fault the second Bush administration’s Department of Health and Human Services for overestimating the benefits of the new Medicare law. Several years earlier, in 1997, the GAO caught the State Department paying a consultant to write op-eds in support of the Clinton administration’s policy on Central America.
As these revelations spread, they sometimes become fodder for vitriolic partisan political battles and sometimes provoke congressional hearings. Just three years ago, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report detailing various Obama administration propaganda efforts. Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman leveled similar charges under the second Bush administration. But the matter is then forgotten until the next propaganda scandal breaks out.
This cycle has been going on for at least a century, and it repeats itself because no corrective mechanism is in place. There is no systematic monitoring of government information. The inspectors general and GAO do not regularly report on agency communications. No congressional committee has jurisdiction over government information.
The scope of the third dimension is difficult to assess. In 2014, the government spent $760 million to hire private advertising companies, according to USASpending.gov. Contracts have purchased advertising space on all forms of media, market research and opinion polls, message writing assistance and more.
This figure does not include the salaries of the countless federal employees who promote the work of their agencies in print, on air and online. It does not include anti-drug media campaigns, or the cost of printing and publishing government reports and journals, such as the Federal Highway Administration’s Public roads magazine. Speaking of publishing, the Government Publishing Office, which costs $110 million to operate, has over a million online posts.
The Internet has only exacerbated this problem by making it easier to communicate with the public. Shortly after President Obama took office, his administration conducted an audit of federal government websites. They found 24,000 of them.
The Obama administration has made extensive use of social media, which has been so successful during its run for the presidency. The Ministry of Commerce has a Youtube channel. The Environmental Protection Agency — to name just one of 120 government agencies — has approximately two dozen Twitter accounts. He uses a social media tool called Thunderclap, which spreads messages so widely that an agency communications manager calls it a “virtual flashmob.
EPA communications to the public include both factual updates on the agency’s response to the Gold King mine spill and aggressive advocacy for the EPA’s clean energy plan. Presidential nominations running for an administration are beyond reproach. But using the agencies as presidential couriers sullies the civil service, which is supposed to be nonpartisan.
Congress has tried to curb this behavior. In 1913, he passed a law prohibiting, without his express approval, the spending of funds earmarked for “advertising experts”. Several years later, he enacted his Popular Lobbying Ban, which prohibits the executive branch from using taxpayers’ money to whip up public pressure to influence law-making.
Every year, appropriation bills prohibit agencies from spending funds for “advertising or propaganda purposes.” But that didn’t help much. As noted Mordecai Leeone of the few academics to take an interest in this issue, the agencies gave their communications staff different titles, such as “public affairs specialist”, and renamed their communications “outreach” and “public education”.
The GAO defines “propaganda” very narrowly as government information that is not labeled as such. Unfortunately, it has also proven nearly impossible to write a law that absolutely differentiates information from advocacy.
Congress is again trying to do something about government information in a modest way. the Taxpayer Transparency Act 2015 would force agencies to label their ads and media as government-produced, which agencies don’t always do.
But this reform would be even more useful if it required agencies to cite and share the sources of their “facts”. Where, for example, is the Department of Labor data that proves hot dog vendors earn less than $9 an hour?
Congress should direct agencies to inventory annually the number of public communications they produce, the number of employees who assist with communications, and the approximate cost. These reports should also refer to the laws that authorize the agencies to communicate with the public and for what purposes.
All of this data must be submitted to the Government Accountability Office, which can audit the data and then publicly publish an aggregate inventory of government public communications.
This is just the start, of course. But it would be a big step up from where we are now. Just as setting the federal minimum wage is a topic ripe for vigorous political debate and decision-making, so is the third dimension.