An investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that the Environmental Protection Agency violated federal law by engaging in “covert propaganda” when it used social media to encourage the public to support a water rule backed by the Obama administration.

The audit was conducted after the New York Times released a report in May which alleged that in order to promote a rule claiming to “protect the nation’s drinking water,” the EPA “orchestrated a drive to counter political opposition from Republicans and enlist public support in concert with liberal environmental groups and a grass-roots organization aligned with President Obama.”

As a result of the March 2014 campaign, when the agency produced data at a Senate committee in March 2015, it claimed to have received more than one million comments with nearly 90 percent favoring the proposal.

The report released by the Government Accountability Office on Monday claimed that the EPA “obligated and expended appropriated funds in violations of statutory prohibitions.”

[pull_quote_center]We conclude that EPA violated the described provisions through its use of social media in association with its rule making efforts to define ‘Waters of the United States’ under the Clean Water Act during [fiscal years] 2014 and 2015.[/pull_quote_center]

The report concluded that while the EPA’s use of hashtags such as #DitchtheMyth and #CleanWaterRules on social media did not break any federal laws, its use of Thunderclap “constituted covert propaganda” which was “in violation of the publicity of propaganda prohibition.”

The EPA describes the Thunderclap tool as one that helps the agency “get the word out about events, special alerts, tips or other special messages.” When users sign up for the Thunderclap, they give it access to “post our message” to the users’ Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr accounts which the agency described as a “virtual flash mob” where messages “will go out on everyone’s walls and feeds at the same time.” 

The New York Times noted that while the opinion is “unlikely to lead to civil or criminal penalties,” it emerged “just as Republican leaders moved to block the so-called Waters of the United States clean-water rule through an amendment to the enormous spending bill expected to pass in Congress this week.” 

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