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The FCC’s Mad Men: Why Do Government Agencies Use Social Media?

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Like the rest of the world, government agencies find themselves with the ability to communicate with the public in real-time via Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. For several years, federal agencies have struggled with various aspects of social media, including who is allowed to tweet, the type of content permitted, and so on. Even so, today most agencies, ranging from Agriculture to Veterans’ Affairs have official social media accounts.

A perusal of agencies’ Twitter feeds shows that agencies typically use social media to convey information to the public. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), for example, routinely tweets the list of “transactions granted early termination…” and other information FTC-watchers track.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), however, is different. To be sure, like other agencies, its Tweets include tantalizing information nuggets such as one encouraging spectrum auction participants to “…check out our glossary of key terms….”

But unlike other agencies, the FCC also includes a steady stream of propaganda among its tweets.

September was especially egregious. As the Chairman was encountering resistance to his set-top box proposal, @FCC unleashed a tweetstorm trying to convince readers of the need for the rule (but not letting the public read the rule itself).

These tweets do not convey helpful information to consumers, notify the public of new rules, or alert the world to new rulemakings and requesting comments. Instead, the tweets advocate in favor of a controversial proposed rule by making questionable assertions about the rule’s supposed benefits. In other words, propaganda.

As a back-of-the-envelope test I counted how many of the most recent 200 tweets from several agencies could be considered propaganda: the FCC, FTC, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Justice. I considered a tweet to be propaganda if it was clearly advocating for new rules or a particular point of view not part of an existing rule, rather than providing information, announcing speeches or events, or otherwise presenting facts. [Of course, classifying tweets is subjective, so here is a link to the 200 tweets from each agency so you can look yourself.]

Reviewing the most recent Twitter feeds from the FCC, FTC, SEC, FERC, and the DOJ reveals that only the FCC regularly issues tweets that can be categorized as propaganda. Of the 200 tweets from September 2, 2016 through October 3, 2016, I count 33 propaganda, as opposed to informational, tweets. The other agencies had no propaganda tweets.

Some may contend that it is perfectly appropriate for an agency chair to use social media to promote his agenda. But perhaps the chair should use his own account for policy advocacy, rather than equating himself with the agency. The FCC commissioners, including the Chairman, already have Twitter accounts, as do some of their staff members, (typically @[name]fcc) that they use to give their policy views. Those accounts seem like appropriate places for agency-related opinions and arguments that do not necessarily reflect agency policy.[1]

Government in general has a long history of using propaganda to advance its purposes, for better and for worse. Sometimes it may not be obvious whether particular outreach is propaganda or not. Regardless, if expert agencies want social media to be useful to those who need to be on top of what the agency is doing, it’s probably best not to force the public to be wary of propaganda in the official accounts, regardless of how much the chair has invested in a particular point of view.

[1] Of course, this raises the question of what actually represents agency policy or the agency’s position. Do those reflect the Chair’s agenda, or should it include only rules that the Commission has passed?