July 27, 2018

Menendez Calls on BBG to Clarify Domestic Ads on Facebook

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today sent a letter to John Lansing, CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent agency of the United States government to ensure its international media services and surrogate channels abide by laws meant to protect Americans from domestic propaganda.

The Senator’s letter comes after a New York Times article on research conducted at Syracuse University found that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a grantee network of the BBG, purchased political ads on Facebook that were targeted at the social media platform’s users in the United States.

“Perhaps now more than ever, the BBG’s mission to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy is of utmost importance,” wrote Senator Menendez. “It is critical that as the United States embraces and promotes freedom, transparency, and democracy, your networks adhere to these standards. While I understand that BBG has made clear that it not BBG’s policy or practice to distribute content or target domestic audiences, I look forward to hearing from you how BBG will ensure that it does not do so in the future.”

Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Reform Act of 2012 allowing the BBG to make content available in the United States upon request and reimbursement, though it clearly states that federal funding can never be used to influence public opinion in the United States.

In his letter, Sen. Menendez requests that BBG address the following concerns by August 7, 2018:

·        Whether Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty knowingly or intentionally purchased political ads on Facebook to target U.S. users

·        The number of Facebook ads purchased by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty targeting Americans, and the number of American users reached

·        Whether any other BBG network has purchased ads on social media targeting U.S. users

·        How BBG is ensuring that its networks do not distribute content to U.S. users in the future, excluding any exceptions set forth by the 2012 Smith-Mundt Reform Act

A copy of the letter can be found HERE and below:

Dear CEO Lansing,

I was troubled to read recent reports that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty purchased ads on Facebook that were targeted at the social media platform’s users in the United States.

As you know, federal law restricts the Broadcasting Board of Governors or any of its networks from disseminating material to U.S. audiences except in limited instances. Recognizing a rapidly changing media landscape, the 2012 Smith-Mundt Reform Act allowed the BBG to make content available in the United States upon request and reimbursement. However, the law clearly states that no federal funding for the BBG “shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States.”

Perhaps now more than ever, the BBG’s mission to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy is of utmost importance. Foreign audiences around the world have come to rely on programming from the BBG’s networks because, as described in your agency’s FY18 budget justification: “A legally mandated “firewall” prohibits political interference in the agency’s content, ensuring that journalists and editors can develop programming that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism.”

It is critical that as the United States embraces and promotes freedom, transparency, and democracy, your networks adhere to these standards. While I understand that BBG has made clear that it not BBG’s policy or practice to distribute content or target domestic audiences, I look forward to hearing from you how BBG will ensure that it does not do so in the future. To that end, I ask that you respond to the following questions: 

  1. Did Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty knowingly or intentionally purchase political ads on Facebook to target U.S. users?
  2. How many Facebook ads targeting users in the United States did Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty purchase? How many U.S. users were reached through those ads?
  3. Have any other BBG networks purchased ads on Facebook or any other social media platform that targeted users in the United States?
  4. How is BBG ensuring that BBG and its networks do not distribute content to U.S. users in the future, other than as allowed for by Smith-Mundt Reform Act?

I look forward to your response by August 7, 2018. I also ask that you brief my staff on these issues at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

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