With Donald Trump now in power, every federal agency in America is on notice. Government workers are being told to shut their mouths, whether it’s about scientific research from the Environmental Protection Agency or climate change data from the National Park Service. But in the face of all this, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is doing everything it can to continue communicating with the public. But for how long?
The CPSC may seem like one of the least political organizations in all of government. The agency’s mission is to notify the American public about potentially dangerous products—whether it’s exploding phones or toppling dressers. But some select CPSC staff are watching in horror as President Trump cracks down on how agencies communicate with Americans. And they’re worried about the fate of their new Facebook page, launched in defiance of Trump’s anti-consumer crusade.
The CPSC officially announced its Facebook page and Instagram account on January 17, 2017—just three days before Trump was sworn in as president. On the surface, this is a completely normal thing for any federal agency to do. But CPSC’s creation of a Facebook page was controversial even before Trump got into office, because of laws already in place that hinder how the CPSC is allowed to communicate with the public.
Way back in 1981, Republicans neutered the Consumer Product Safety Commission by introducing a law that allowed private companies to restrict what the safety agency could say about their products. Most Americans are probably unaware that before the CPSC was allowed to talk about the Samsung Galaxy Note 7's recent explosions, the CPSC had to give Samsung veto power over any statement it made. That’s just standard, and it’s explicitly designed to give industry an enormous amount of power over product recalls.
But now that the Trump regime has been installed, and CPSC leadership will soon be replaced with Trump appointees, the agency wonders what will happen to its latest methods of engaging the public.
“We decided to launch on Facebook a couple of days before the inauguration,” one senior staff member at the CPSC told me, wishing to stay anonymous. “It was time to take a bold step.”
So what would Republicans have to worry about from a CPSC Facebook page? How could having an Instagram account, a seemingly mundane thing for any other agency, become such a revolutionary act?
“It’s about the comments,” the senior staff member told me. “We’re on now with open commenting, and the fear is that we’ll post a recall about a product and someone [in the public] goes on to attack a company.”
But isn’t that the point of an agency like CPSC? To tell people about dangerous products and solicit feedback if consumers spot other dangers? That two-way street is seen as dangerous by pro-industry groups. But staff at the CPSC don’t see why they should censor speech on the internet any more than they would in a public forum.
“Those who testify could use such a platform to make negative comments about a company while on our property, and we would not stop the hearing, we would not stop the live webstream and we would not edit the recording,” the senior CSPC staff member told me. So what’s the difference when someone make a comment on Instagram or Facebook?
In discussions with Gizmodo during this past fall in the wake of the Samsung phone recall, a special interest group argued that if consumers are given a platform to express discontent with a product, a given company doesn’t have a fair chance to defend itself against any lies. Which seems to be a common argument.
If this is all starting to sound a little crazy and antiquated, given the traditionally open nature of internet commenting, that’s because it is. But pro-industry groups, from the toy industry to mobile phone makers, are going to fight tooth and nail to keep regulators at bay.
“Our presence on these platforms appropriately builds on our life-saving efforts to share trusted information about health and safety risks associated with on-going and emerging hazards as well as recalled products,” said Elliot F. Kaye on January 17th when the agency joined the platforms. “Facebook and Instagram importantly allow us to target segments of the population that require a more creative and direct approach to reach with our messaging.”
Those platforms are still live, as of today. But who knows what tomorrow will bring. It’s only Thursday. And Donny Trump has been a very busy boy this week.
[Update 10:56am: Minor changes to tone down the language of this piece (specifically characterizing the entire agency rather than a select group were watching in “horror”) was toned down to more accurately reflect sentiments at the agency, at the request of an anonymous source.]