State Media: Move Fast and Label Things

person using both laptop and smartphone

Dominant thanks to their privileged status and special funding arrangements, state media play a disproportionately high role in shaping narratives, especially in times of crisis, as the ongoing war in Ukraine shows. That is the reason why content published by state media outlets should be properly labeled.

“It’s really important for people to know where the content comes from, and, even more so, when such content comes from state media as these outlets tend to be government propaganda channels,” said Marius Dragomir, the author of a recent study covering 151 countries, which shows that nearly 80% of the state media globally lack editorial independence.

More than two thirds of the 540 or so state media organizations in the world today are state controlled, meaning that the state funds, owns and editorially controls these outlets, according to Dragomir who has collected data on state media for the past 18 years, curating the most complete database of state media to date.

Some of the tech giants have already started labeling state media that have a presence on their platforms. In 2018, YouTube, Google’s video-sharing platform, began to label state media accounts, using financing as the sole criterion to establish the state affiliation.

Twitter followed suit in 2020 when it started labeling accounts of government-linked media, using a more complex set of criteria, which includes editorial control, to decide whether a media outfit is state affiliated. The platform informed that it would slap state-affiliated labels on the accounts of media outfits “where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, political pressure or control over production and distribution.”

In mid-2020, Facebook also announced that it began to label state media that have accounts on its platform. Instagram followed a few months later.

To establish the state affiliation, Facebook uses the most detailed set of criteria including ownership structure, sources of funding and evidence of editorial control. According to Facebook’s assessment system, media outlets established by the state that have protocols ensuring their financial and editorial independence, such as BBC in the UK or the German public broadcasters ZDF and ARD, are not labeled.

Some media outlets, especially those labeled by Facebook, criticized the labeling project as discriminatory. Sputnik, a Kremlin-financed media outlet, referred to it as “U.S.-inspired suppression of the freedom of speech.”

But media experts agree that public media outlets that prove their editorial independence should not be labeled as state-affiliated media. “It’s just absurd to label independent public broadcasters as state-controlled media simply because they’re not,” Dragomir said. Unfortunately, independent public media are hard to find these days. According to Dragomir’s study, only 18 out of more than 540 state media in the world qualify as independent public service media.

The ongoing crisis triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is showing how crucial it is to have a fair system of labeling state media. “Labeling is part of promoting consumer choice,” Anya Schiffrin, who teaches at Columbia University in New York, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an NGO. A study from the George Washington University in the U.S. found that the state-media labeling on social media mitigates misinformation. It suggested “platforms need to be intentional in how warning labels are implemented to avoid subtlety that may cause users to miss them.”

With the war raging in Ukraine, tech platforms have intensified their efforts to label state media, especially those funded by the Russian and Belarusian governments, adding new restrictions on them. Google and Meta, the company that owns Facebook, barred media outlets labeled as state-affiliated from selling ads on their platforms.

“This is the right thing to do,” Dragomir said. “You can’t let state propaganda channels boost their content, especially at such a critical time.”