A broadcasting organization backed by the federal government has used Facebook to target ads at United States citizens, in potential violation of longstanding laws meant to protect Americans from domestic propaganda.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which typically broadcasts to audiences in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, bought several ads on Facebook in recent days that were targeted at users in the United States. The ads included several human-interest stories about Russia and a graphic about NATO’s popularity. As with other state-funded media organizations, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is mostly restricted by law from promoting its content in the United States except on request.
The ads that ran on the organization’s Facebook page were uncovered by a Syracuse University researcher, Jennifer M. Grygiel, who was able to view them because of a recent policy change by Facebook. In May, the social network began displaying more information about ads on its platform, including about where the ads were targeted and the buyers.
It is unclear how many people saw the advertisements, or for how long the broadcaster has been directing them to Americans. The organization, which is overseen by a person appointed during the Obama administration, said in a statement that it had purchased the ads, as well as ads in 14 other countries, to reach Facebook users who spoke specific languages.
After being contacted by The New York Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty pulled down the ads.
Nasserie Carew, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees state-funded media organizations, said in a statement that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had “ceased the practice” of targeting ads at people in the United States after her group’s management had discussions with the broadcaster.
“None of the B.B.G. networks should be distributing or promoting our content domestically in order to develop or grow domestic audiences,” Ms. Carew said. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, she said, tries to target English speakers. Some citizens in repressive countries use tools that route their internet traffic through United States servers to view foreign content, she said, which can make them appear to be Americans. But she said that the ads should not have been targeted at people in the United States.
She added that the B.B.G. recently appointed a chief technology officer “due to the complexity of working on different social media platforms.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which has its headquarters in Prague, was formed during the Cold War as a counterforce to Soviet propaganda programs. The organization has continued to promote American interests abroad, though it says a firewall prevents United States government officials from determining its coverage. It operates in 20 countries, with more than 600 employees and a budget of nearly $ 120 million last year, according to its website.
In recent years, critics have accused Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America of being dysfunctional and slow to adapt to a changing media environment. Last month, the organization was fined by a Moscow court for failing to comply with Russian foreign agent laws.
As with all affiliates of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is governed by the Smith-Mundt Act, a 1948 law that banned government-funded media outlets from disseminating their content inside the United States. The law was amended in 2014 to allow state-funded media organizations to distribute their content “upon request” to American viewers.
In June, the White House announced plans to nominate Michael Pack, a conservative activist with ties to Stephen K. Bannon, the former presidential adviser, to lead the B.B.G. The organization has been led since 2015 by John F. Lansing, a former cable news executive.
One post promoted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Facebook page showed a graphic with approval numbers for NATO around the world. It included the caption: “The majority of people surveyed in Greece and Turkey have unfavorable views of NATO.” The ad ran on July 13, just after President Trump criticized numerous NATO members at a summit meeting in Brussels.
Another ad showed a video of an emerging Russian sport called “Swamp Football,” a soccer-like game played in knee-high mud. The caption read, “The World Cup has just finished, but these Russians are reinventing football.” The video was a clip from Current Time TV, a Russian-language show that airs primarily in Europe. Current Time TV began airing in 2016 as an alternative to Kremlin-controlled outlets that critics say have promoted misinformation and propaganda abroad.
A third ad, which ran on the broadcaster’s Facebook page in early July, showed Russian soccer fans celebrating the country’s World Cup victory over Spain.
None of these posts was labeled a political ad by Facebook’s algorithm. Because they were not categorized as political ads, the amount spent on them was not disclosed, and they do not appear in Facebook’s ad archive.
Facebook has faced mounting pressure to stamp out propaganda and misinformation on its platform. But the steps it has taken to increase transparency around ads have been hampered by problems, such as an algorithm that has at times wrongly flagged ads by small businesses as being political in nature. Unlike YouTube, which began labeling videos published by state-funded media outlets earlier this year, Facebook’s ad transparency policy does not differentiate state-funded media from independent media.
“State-funded media is inherently political — it should all be documented in Facebook’s political ad database,” said Professor Grygiel, who discovered the broadcaster’s domestic ads. “I hope that Congress will review this, and I hope Facebook will change their policies and product.”
Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management for ads, said that the company was looking at offering more details about pages that run ads, including country information.
Two ads that ran on the broadcaster’s page were labeled political ads. One, a post about an anti-tank missile system given to Ukraine by the United States, was targeted mainly at users in Britain and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The other, a sponsored story about a Russian lawmaker who warned World Cup attendees against having sex with tourists during the tournament, was targeted at users in Europe.
Both ads were taken down by Facebook because they did not come from an account that had gone through an authorization process to post political ads.
Weston R. Sager, a lawyer with firm Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell who has written about anti-propaganda laws, said that it was disturbing to see government-funded news agencies targeting Facebook ads at Americans, no matter their content.
“I’m concerned that we’re seeing the beginning of government efforts to try to influence public opinion in the United States through the B.B.G. and its affiliate entities,” Mr. Sager said. “It’s one thing to read a tweet by Donald Trump. It’s another to receive a very polished news story from an organization that holds itself out as objective and fact-based.”