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EPA 'propaganda' isn't quite as dramatic as advertised

The headlines said the EPA was caught relying on "covert propaganda." The truth is far less scandalous.
The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)
The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C.
At times it was difficult to keep up with all of the unsettling political developments during the Bush/Cheney era, but one of the more troublesome came to be known as "media sock-puppetry."
As we discussed last year, the Bush administration had a bad habit of paying pundits to endorse the Republican agenda, creating fake-news segments to be distributed to local television stations (to be aired without public disclosure), and even hiring retired military officers to appear in the media to say they agree with the Bush administration’s policies.
And with those incidents in mind, it seems only fair to note that the Obama administration's EPA this week appears, at least at first blush, to have been caught up in a similar kind of controversy. The New York Times' front-page headline certainly seems dramatic: "E.P.A. Broke Law With Social Media Push for Water Rule, Auditor Finds." The article told readers:

The Environmental Protection Agency engaged in “covert propaganda” and violated federal law when it blitzed social media to urge the public to back an Obama administration rule intended to better protect the nation’s streams and surface waters, congressional auditors have concluded. [...] “G.A.O.’s finding confirms what I have long suspected, that E.P.A. will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda,” Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is pressing to block the rule, said in a statement Monday.

Well, that certainly sounds serious. What, exactly, did the Environmental Protection Agency do?
At issue is something called the Waters of the United States clean-water rule, which officials at the EPA hoped to rally public support for. The trouble, evidently, came with the social-media tools the agency put to use. From the Times' piece:

[The key incident] involved the Thunderclap campaign in September 2014, in which the E.P.A. used a new type of social media tool to quickly reach out to 1.8 million people to urge them to support the clean-water proposal. Thunderclap, described as an online flash mob, allows large groups of people to share a single message at once. “Clean water is important to me,” the Thunderclap message said. “I support E.P.A.’s efforts to protect it for my health, my family and my community.” The effort violated federal law, the G.A.O. said, because as it ricocheted around the Internet, many people who received the message would not have known that it was written by the E.P.A., making it covert propaganda.

I'm strongly of the opinion that covert government propaganda must be avoided, but the allegations here are pretty thin. The EPA created a social-media message, it disseminated that message, and it made no effort whatsoever to hide its authorship of the message.
The investigation's findings even noted that the content was "visibly attributed to EPA, as it displayed the agency's profile photo and, under the title, 'by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.'" Here's the original page the public was directed to -- and take note of the EPA logo in the middle.
So what's the catch? Apparently, investigators at the Government Accountability Office determined that as the EPA's message worked its way around the Internet, it might not have been entirely clear that the EPA created the message.
Ergo, there was a potential for "covert propaganda." These are the "extreme lengths" about which Inhofe was so eager to complain.
Look, media sock-puppetry must be avoided, regardless of administration. And when the Bush/Cheney team used taxpayer money to pay pundits to publicly praise the administration's agenda, that was a real controversy.
This EPA story, however, is something else entirely, and it seems quite trivial by comparison.