The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency broke federal law by engaging in “convert propaganda,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined Monday, the New York Times reported. The EPA had blitzed social media, supporting an Obama administration regulation that gives the agency power over smaller streams of water.

The EPA had used several social media channels , including Twitter, Facebook YouTube and Thunderclap -- a social media amplification tool -- for a campaign to counter opposition to a controversial ruling that restricts how land near some surface waters can be used. Specifically, GAO said the EPA violated federal law for its use of Thunderclap, which has been dubbed as an online flash mob because it allows massive groups of people to share one message at the same time.  

“Clean water is important to me,” the Thunderclap message said. “I support the EPA’s efforts to protect it for my health, my family and my community."

The message was considered covert propaganda by GAO because people might not have known the message was written by the EPA. GAO also determined that the EPA violated federal law when it published a blog post that linked to two environmental groups’ pages that advised readers to contact members of Congress to oppose legislation and that the agency has violated federal law that prohibits spending government resources that have not been appropriated. 

GettyImages-483685918 Cement Creek, which was flooded with millions of gallons of mining wastewater, is viewed on Aug.11 in Silverton, Colorado. Photo: Reuters

“We conclude that the EPA’s use of Thunderclap constituted covert propaganda, in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition,” GAO wrote.“We also conclude that the EPA hyperlinks to the [Natural Resources Defense Council] and Surfrider Foundation webpages provided in the EPA blog post constitute grassroots lobbying, in violation of the grassroots lobbying prohibition.”

In response, the EPA has defended its practices.

“We use social media tools just like all organizations to stay connected and inform people across the country about our activities,” said Liz Purchia, an agency spokeswoman, the Hill reported. “At no point did the EPA encourage the public to contact Congress or any state legislature.”

The EPA had been promoting the Waters of the United States Rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule. While the agency has touted the rule as a way to prevent pollution in drinking water sources, it has been considered a government overreach by farmers, business groups and Republicans. The EPA had adopted the rule earlier this year, but its execution was suspended nationally in October by a federal appeals court after opponents challenged it.

Republicans can seek to foil spending for the rule in a year-end funding package that could be released on Monday evening, the Hill reported.