Media outlets and analysts have condemned a decision by Twitter to label the BBC, VOA and NPR as “government-funded media,” saying the policy’s application has been inconsistent and risks reducing trust in the independent media outlets.
Twitter first added a “state-affiliated media” tag to National Public Radio’s main account on April 4 before changing that on Saturday to “government funded media.” It added the same wording to the main accounts for Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The state-affiliated label has more commonly been used to flag state-controlled propaganda outlets in countries like China and Russia.
When NPR first received the state-affiliated label, its chief executive John Lansing pushed back, saying, “NPR stands for freedom of speech and holding the powerful accountable. It is unacceptable for Twitter to label us this way. A vigorous, vibrant free press is essential to the health of our democracy.”
Press freedom advocates also flagged concerns.
“The confusion between media serving the general interest and propaganda media is dangerous, and is yet further proof that social media platforms are not competent to identify what is and is not journalism,” Vincent Berthier, head of the technology desk at Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement.
Less than 1% of NPR’s annual operating budget comes from grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and federal entities, according to the outlet’s website.
NPR reported on an email exchange between Twitter’s owner Elon Musk and one of its reporters.
In that exchange, Musk acknowledged that he was unclear about NPR’s relationship with the government when the platform added the state-affiliated label.
When the reporter told him that NPR receives only about 1% of its annual revenue from the federal government, Musk is cited as saying: “Well, then we should fix” the designation.
VOA’s public relations department on Monday also pushed back against Twitter’s decision, saying the label gives the impression that VOA is not an independent outlet.
Twitter did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
VOA is funded by the U.S. government through the U.S. Agency for Global Media, but its editorial independence is protected by regulations and a firewall.
Bridget Serchak, VOA’s director of public relations, said that “the label ‘government funded’ is potentially misleading and could be construed as also ‘government-controlled’ — which VOA is most certainly not.”
“Our editorial firewall, enshrined in the law, prohibits any interference from government officials at any level in its news coverage and editorial decision-making process,” Serchak said in an email. “VOA will continue to emphasize this distinction in our discussions with Twitter, as this new label on our network causes unwarranted and unjustified concern about the accuracy and objectivity of our news coverage.”
Britain’s BBC is primarily funded by an annual television license fee set by the government and paid for by residents.
The BBC has said it objects to the new label and is in contact with Twitter to have it changed.
“The BBC is, and always has been, independent. We are funded by the British public through the license fee,” the outlet said in a report.
Other independent media outlets that also receive funding from governments so far do not appear to have had the label added to their Twitter accounts.
“The application of the policy is very inconsistent, which is different than the policy being inconsistent,” said Katie Harbath, chief executive at the tech policy firm Anchor Change and a former director of public policy at Facebook.
“It seems like they’re handling it like they’ve handled everything else since Musk joined, which is very spur of the moment, lacking any deep thought and principles behind it,” Harbath added.
In its platform guidelines, Twitter defines government and state-affiliated media “as outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.”
Propaganda outlets like China’s Xinhua and Russia’s TASS are labeled as state-affiliated media.
Companies often spend years developing policies on how to best label different news outlets, according to Harbath, and part of the problem is that short labels often aren’t detailed enough to explain such a nuanced issue.
“It gets really tricky the minute you start scratching the surface. How do you define state-sponsored media? Do you do it by their funding? How do you look at editorial control?” she said. “All of those different things — it starts to get really complicated.”
Twitter was criticized in recent months about another media policy when it suspended the accounts of several reporters who covered the platform’s removal of an account that track’s Musk’s private jet.
The journalists affected, including VOA chief national correspondent Steve Herman, were not able to post content to their account or access direct messages unless they agreed to delete posts about the @Elonjet account.