Americans don’t like propaganda. It’s un-American! So you might be upset to hear that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just got slapped on the wrist by government auditors for spreading “covert propaganda” on the internet. Here’s what happened.

The ruling from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that the EPA violated federal law when it used the internet to spread messages about the Clean Water Rule. Also known as the Waters of the United States rule, the proposal would restrict how land near water sources can be used. Given the fact that an acid-spilling mine turned a Colorado river bright orange earlier this year, this seems like a good idea!

Republicans disagree. Or at least they disagree with how the EPA alerted the public about the new rule, which is supported by the Obama administration. “GAO’s finding confirms what I have long suspected, that EPA will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda,” Senator James M. Inhofe, a Republican, said in a fist-shaking statement that also accused the EPA of “illegal attempts to manufacture public support [for the rule] and sway congressional opinion.”

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Indeed, it is illegal for agencies like the EPA to lobby Congress and spread covert propaganda. Yet propaganda seems like a very strong words for what the EPA actually did. The auditor’s report points to two seemingly mundane infractions. One, the EPA sent out a blast through a relatively unknown social media platform called Thunderclap in September 2014. It’s clearly marked as an EPA message which sort of undermines the whole “covert” or “extreme” descriptors used by critics. Look:

Clean water is important to everyone!

The second infraction is even more confusing. Travis Loop, Communications Director for the EPA Office of Water, wrote a blog post about how he doesn’t want polluted water to endanger his children or his pets. He also mentions that he doesn’t “want to get sick from pollution” while surfing and links to a blog post from the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental organization. The GAO didn’t flag Loop’s blog post. The auditors flagged the hyperlink in the blog post as a violation of federal law.

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Does any of this sound like propaganda? Or does it sound like a government agency using the internet in a pretty normal way to raise awareness about an important initiative?

Republicans like Senator Inhofe will inevitably use the EPA’s violation as fuel in the smoldering debate over a massive spending bill that will be debated in Congress this week. The package includes the Clean Water Rule. Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill, it’s more than a little bit unnerving to see agencies slammed for spreading “covert propaganda” on the internet all because of a glorified tweet and a hyperlink.

Propaganda or not, clean water seems like a pretty good idea.

Correction 12.16.2015: An earlier version of this post referred to Travis Loop as “a former EPA press officer.” He is, in fact, the current Communications Director for the EPA Office of Water.

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[New York Times]


Contact the author at adam@gizmodo.com.
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