Illegal Targeting of Americans with Facebook ads by Voice of America
Originally published on November 18, 2019 and last edited for formatting changes on February 19, 2021.
The review by former Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and his committee staff, found in December 2018 that insufficient management and devolved operating structures for digital advertising at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) in the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), previously called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), allowed for repeated violations of the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits domestic dissemination of content developed by the State Department and U.S.-funded entities.
An examination of six VOA language services found at least 860 Smith-Mundt violations over a two-year period. Violations continued even after the New York Times report exposing them, and the launch of a USAGM task force designed to address the issue.
Former USAGM CEO, John F. Lansing and current (March 2020) Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, both of them appointed to their positions during the Obama administration, had been warned earlier about these violations but ignored these warnings and took no effective action to stop violations until The New York Times published an expose earlier this year.
And the good news is that VOA’s primary digital arm, VOA newsroom, appears to have avoided Smith-Mundt violations.
That said, despite the warnings from VOA management, Smith-Mundt violations at language services continued through September 2018 . VOA claims these violations are unintentional – underscoring the need for greater analysis and review of ad performance. This would likely lead not only to fewer violations, but also to more effective ads.
Take the case of VOA Russian . The service exclusively targeted audiences in Washington, D.C. with ads more than 32 times during a two week period in July of 2017. If, as VOA has said, these were unintentional Smith-Mundt violations, they could have been caught by a routine review of ongoing ads. Persistent acts of negligence should not be tolerated.
4 See Attachment III for spreadsheet detailing VOA Persian Facebook ads from August 27, 2018 through September 3, 2018.
 See Attachment IV for spreadsheet detailing VOA Russian Facebook ads from July 3, 2017 through July 17, 2017.
VOA Eurasia Division – Poygraph.info, which was set up to fact check Russian disinformation – identified its target segment for digital media advertising as “digital media consumers.” This [is] embarrassingly thin response. And should be reviewed by management.