EPA Social Campaign Illustrates Divide Between New Media and Old Politics

Critics of the EPA say the social media campaign violated federal lobbying laws.

This week, a multimedia campaign created in 2014 by the Environmental Protection Agency raised new questions about using digital/social in an era still governed by laws written when everyone used real old-school telephones to communicate.

As reported in The New York Times, the EPA used the hashtag #DitchTheMyth and the social media campaign management tool Thunderclap to promote a newly proposed rule to protect the quality of American drinking water.

Many agricultural groups opposed the specifics of the rule and claimed that it would empower the EPA to “regulate puddles.”

In order to demonstrate public approval for the new project, the group (working with such environmental advocacy orgs as Sierra Club) asked users to voice their support and now claims that an overwhelming majority of Americans want the rule to go into effect. Critics argue that the campaign broke existing lobbying laws, which do not allow federal agencies to persuade members of the public to “communicate with their elected representatives on some issue of concern to the [agency],” and that the comments collected by the EPA do not represent the opinions of the public.

The key issue here–according to the EPA–is that the campaign never explicitly told users to contact their congressmen/women (though many obviously did so after seeing it).

The very fact that we’re having this debate tells us that our defiantly analog world of politics needs to catch up with digital reality.

If political organizations can’t use user generated content, then who can?