How would you feel about a group representing oil industry interests coordinating with the Department of Health to oppose legislation? Or maybe agriculture interests working with the Department of Agriculture?
And not just working with, but literally being allowed to promote messaging under the banner of the state agency?
I think most reasonable people would see that as inappropriate. So what then to make of the fact that the Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control, a state agency you know as BreatheND, colluding with the American Lung Association to oppose legislation that would kill the Center’s budget?
Right now the Legislature is debating SB2084, legislation which would end BreatheND and move whatever remaining tobacco prevention programs there are under the Department of Health. Obviously, the folks at BreatheND want to protect their agency (and their big salaries).
A couple of days ago a SAB reader sent me this screenshot of a sponsored post from BreatheND promoting, to great effect, an editorial from the Bismarck Tribune opposing the Center’s budget cut:
If you run a page on Facebook you can pay the social media company to promote your page or even specific posts by your page. In this instance BreatheND is paying, per the “sponsored” message from Facebook, to promote this Tribune link.
Which in and of itself is a dubious practice for a state agency. Should they be expending tax dollars to advertise against proposed legislation like that? Probably not.
But the truth of how this promotion came to be is actually worse. BreatheND didn’t spend tax dollars on it. Rather, they essentially allowed a private group to use their Facebook profile to promote opposition to the legislation.
Getting the state agency to admit that, though, was difficult.
“[T]hat ad is funded by American Lung Association,” Samantha Doll, Business Manager for BreatheND, told me in an email two days ago.
This raised other questions, because on Facebook you can only pay to promote posts by pages you have some level of administrative access to. I could not, as an example, go to Donald Trump’s page and pay to promote one of his posts. The Trump people would first have to give me some sort of access.
So did BreatheND give the ALA that sort of access? Did BreatheND pay for the ads only to be reimbursed by the ALA?
Doll, initially, said no. After delaying answer for a day, she told me the ALA doesn’t have access to BreatheND’s Facebook page in a January 26 email.
“American Lung Association does not have administrative access to BreatheND’s Facebook page,” Doll told me. “BreatheND made no expenditure and received no reimbursement for the costs related to the sponsored content.”
So how did that post come to be sponsored? Facebook, I can assure you, is not in the habit of promoting content for free.
Finally, after more emails and a phone call, Doll told me in another email yesterday what had actually happened.
“BreatheND granted permission to the American Lung Association to purchase a sponsored BreatheND Facebook post,” she told me. “The American Lung Association worked directly with the Center’s media vendor through this process.”
That’s…problematic. Extremely problematic.
The American Lung Association, a private advocacy group, was allowed to promote political messages under the official banner of a state agency.
What’s next, the North Dakota Petroleum Council spreading their message disguised as the Department of Health? The North Dakota Farm Bureau opposing corporate farming disguised as the Department of Agriculture?
For years now critics of BreatheND such as myself have argued that the agency is little more than a political entity. Anti-tobacco activism masquerading as a health agency.
That BreatheND would allow themselves to be sock puppets for a private advocacy group only proves this point.
It’s proof that BreatheND needs to be shut down.
When I called the American Lung Association I was sent directly to voicemail. I left a message but it wasn’t immediately returned.
I’ve also followed up with Doll regarding how often BreatheND has allowed a private entity like the ALA to send out political messaging using their brand and/or accounts. I’ll update you readers when/if I get that information.