U.S.-Funded Radio Free Europe Aimed Stealth Facebook Ads At Americans: Report

Posts were an apparent violation of domestic anti-propaganda laws.

The U.S. government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty took out several Facebook ads this month targeting American readers in apparent violation of a domestic anti-propaganda law, according to a Syracuse University professor.

Associate professor of communication Jennifer Grygiel discovered a series of sponsored ads aimed at U.S. users that ran on the Facebook page of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They weren’t labeled as political ads by Facebook, nor tracked as such, said Grygiel. They were marked simply “RFE/RL sponsored,” and RFE/RL was identified as a “media/news company.”

They included human-interest stories about Russians. One ad involved a graphic about NATO’s popularity posted two days after Donald Trump demanded at a heated summit in Brussels that NATO members commit more funds to their military budgets.

Grygiel’s discovery and research was reported Thursday by The New York Times. After the story ran, the ads were pulled.

Attorney Weston Sager, who has written about American anti-propaganda laws, found the situation troubling.

“I’m concerned that we’re seeing the beginning of government efforts to try to influence public opinion in the United States,” Sager told The Times.

“It’s one thing to read a tweet by Donald Trump. It’s another to receive a very polished news story from an organization that holds itself out as objective and fact-based.”

Nasserie Carew, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency which supervises the broadcaster and other international state-owned media, said in a statement that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had “ceased the practice” of targeting ads at people in the U.S.

“None of the ... networks should be distributing or promoting our content domestically in order to develop or grow domestic audiences,” the statement said.

Radio Free Europe, headquarterd in Prague, was begun during the Cold War to counteract Soviet propaganda. The organization broadcasts in 20 countries, including in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act banned government-funded media from distributing content in the U.S. and influencing public opinion. The law was amended in 2013 to allow content to be disseminated in America if it’s requested by a third party.

Grygiel is calling for a congressional review of BBG activities in the U.S. and for a change in Facebook policies regarding U.S. state-funded media.

“State-funded media is inherently political — it should all be documented in Facebook’s political ad database,” Grygiel told The Times.

The BBG has been run since 2015 by John Lansing, a former president of Scripps Networks Interactive. The Trump administration announced last month that it planned to nominate Michael Pack to head the agency, CNN reported. Pack, former president of the conservative Claremont Institute, has worked closely with former presidential adviser Stephen Bannon.

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