Government Information and Propaganda: How to draw a line?

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The attached policy study was co-authored by John Maxwell Hamilton, the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor in Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication.


A government cannot be held accountable if citizens don’t know its policies, its plans and its progress in implementing them. Democratic governments must be transparent about much they spend each year and for what purposes. Deploying modern tools to collect and analyze data also can help the public make informed decisions on questions large and small. As one example, businesses rely on U.S. Commerce Department trade statistics to assess foreign markets. As another, the National Weather Service tells us if we need to take an umbrella when we go outdoors.

But that same massive information machinery sometimes goes beyond enlightening citizens and is employed instead to persuade the public to favor certain policies. Is democracy well-served when the government uses taxpayer dollars to shape voter opinions?

A notable example can be found in a recent U.S. Labor Department campaign in favor of raising the minimum wage, a topic on which there is considerable congressional and academic debate. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has pointed out that raising the minimum wage would eliminate some jobs. Yet, the Labor Department’s webpage treats raising the minimum wage as an unalloyed good and labels possible job losses a “myth.”

A message on the department’s webpage invited visitors to: “See how raising the national minimum wage will benefit America’s workers.” In July 2015, the department’s Twitter account shared video of a squiggle of mustard that spelled out “#RaiseTheWage” on a hot dog, directly referencing a hashtag associated with recent interest-group advocacy to pressure fast-food employers to raise wages.

As significant as the corruption of public opinion is for democracy, it receives nowhere near the attention that other information issues do. The National Security Agency’s collection of citizens’ personal data and the excessive wielding of “secret” stamps by various agencies are front-page news. In contrast, the press only episodically covers the issue of government propaganda. Where it does, the attention usually is driven by a partisan attack over a specific executive branch effort to sway voters or by a Government Accountability Office study that turns up a transgression in the course of an investigating a different subject. Congressional committees rarely take up the issue in a systematic way and the executive branch, for obvious reasons, avoids the subject.

The limited attention the topic receives is all the more striking when one realizes the immense scope of government communications. As demonstrated in Figure 2, the federal government spent nearly $800 billion on advertising and public-relations contracts with the private sector in 2015. This includes money spent on advertising in all forms of media, marketing research, opinion polling, message-crafting assistance and more. Over the past five years, such spending has totaled $3.8 billion.

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Contract expenditures do not include the salaries of the innumerable federal employees who promote their agencies’ work in print, on air and online. The total does not include anti-drug media campaigns or the cost of printing and publishing reports and government journals, such as the Federal Highway Administration’s Public Roads magazine. The Government Publishing Office, which costs $117 million to operate, has more than 1 million publications online. The total government spending on public communications certainly exceed $1 billion per year.

The internet has made it much easier for agencies to communicate with the public. Not long after President Barack Obama took office, the administration carried out an audit of federal government websites that found there were 24,000 of them. Every federal agency has an internet presence. The U.S. Justice Department has a YouTube channel. The Environmental Protection Agency alone – to name just one of the 120 government agencies – has about two dozen Twitter accounts.

Federal agencies have established units devoted solely to communication. The U.S. State Department coined the term “ediplomacy” to describe its vast array of internal and external communications. In 2002, the department’s Office of eDiplomacy had six staffers; a decade later, the figure was 80. Altogether, the department counts some 150 people scattered through various offices who work on ediplomacy and who connect with more than 900 staffers overseas. A 2012 report on ediplomacy concluded the State Department “now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the 10 largest US dailies and employing an army of diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms.”

If its information-gathering powers represent the first dimension of government information and its ability to withhold information represents the second, then the third dimension is the government’s ability to propagate information. This paper, which grew out of a spring 2016 R Street Institute roundtable and quotes from roundtable participants, looks to bring government information out of the shadows both by identifying the sometimes knotty issues and by suggesting possible palliatives. This is not meant to be the last word on the subject, but an impetus to further discussion and debate.


Image by M-SUR

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