Federal websites can spill over into propaganda

Propaganda resembles pornography in that you know it if you see it. That’s why federal agencies have to be careful about how and what they communicate to the public. Occasionally they cross the line into propaganda on their websites and in social media.

In my interview with Michael Herz of the Cardozo law school at Yeshiva University in New York, Herz points out that Congress passed a law prohibiting agencies from hiring  publicity agents more than a century ago. It’s still in effect.

So how do you explain the legions of public affairs officers, speech writers and social media strategists on the federal payroll? The answer is, the government has much to communicate, properly and legitimately. Example: When the Affordable Care Act went into effect, the public confronted a totally new and complicated phenomenon. This called for clear communications. But equating use of the exchanges or even getting health care insurance as a patriotic or public duty — that’s what made people uneasy. That the law and the lead-up to its passage were controversial made it all the more crucial that communications from the government stick to the straightforward.

The website, HealthCare.gov, has settled down now. It features straightforward instructions and a picture of an urban hipster couple, she pregnant, he featuring mod hair and an earring. They smile knowingly into one another’s eyes, obviously delighted with the soon-to-be-born baby. The accompanying blog posts seem bland and straightforward, offering tips like, “Find a health care provider you trust.

I checked the Facebook page for HealthCare.gov. I give its maintainers credit for apparent non-censorship. Two of the most recent comments the other day:

From Molly: “Working well for my business. Our employees are happily covered! Thanks HC.gov.

From Masey: “0bamacare sucks, period.”

That about covers the range of opinions out there. Well not quite. There’s this from Daniel: “Make it better. Stop taking the tax refund for those who don’t ‘Heil Hitler’ your Obamacare!” Not clear what he’s saying, but you get the sentiment.

Maybe this is why agencies, as Herz points out, still stick to the tried-and-true — and legally unremarkable — Federal Register for rule-making activities. The clunky register is interactive, but not in real time. It works. In an upcoming interview with young EPA lawyer,  Jessica Hall Zomer, who is a Service to America finalist, described the 200,000  comments the agency received on a proposed water quality rule set to take effect in 2018. She worked 60 days straight to make sure they were all read and accounted for.

Websites operate in broadcast fashion: We publish, you read. We’ll allow feedback at our discretion. The White House website and other departmental sites have lots of information, but they wander into propaganda territory at times. Endless stories about the president’s appearance here, there, and everywhere. This week the White House site carried the statement that the president would “return to Elkhart, Indiana — the first city he visited as president — to highlight the economic progress we’ve made and discuss the challenges that remain.”  Since economists and others constantly argue about the level of economic progress, the sentence should end after the word president. Take a look at the Cuba page. Cuba is an important question. Perhaps the stasis since JFK is failed policy, as the White House states. I don’t know. But all of these things engender hot and legitimate debate. I could easily edit the White House Cuba page to retain the facts while keeping it more neutral. An agency should state its policy, a matter of public records. But it should avoid boosterism and politics.

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