Twitter’s actions could damage trust in PSM

13th April 2023
The actions of the social media network – inaccurately and misleadingly labelling independent PSM as “state-affiliated” or “government-funded” – has the potential to damage public trust in public media. 
PBS Twitter profile screenshot. 13 April 2023. Twitter/PBS

The erroneous and seemingly erratic changes to label some independent public service media (PSM) as “state-affiliated” or “government-funded” by Twitter has the potential to be highly damaging to the reputation of, and trust in, these organisations.

The US public broadcaster NPR was first to be affected, initially described as “US state-affiliated media”, which was then altered to “Government Funded Media”. At the same time as NPR’s label was changed, the BBC, PBS, and VOA were also included and given the same label. In another change, Twitter HQ then decided to correct the grammar of the label to “Government-funded Media”.

At the time of writing, the BBC’s label – and only the BBC –  has now changed to “publicly funded media”. This followed an interview conducted by the BBC’s North America technology reporter, James Clayton, with Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk.

But NPR and PBS remain labelled as “Government-funded Media”. The whole debacle has, for NPR, amounted to a severance of trust in the social media network, and while only one of its 52 profiles was labelled, the public broadcaster has announced that it will no longer post any new content on Twitter. “I would never have our content go anywhere that would risk our credibility,” said NPR’s CEO and President, John Lansing.

Even if the labels were suddenly removed, NPR will not return. “At this point I have lost my faith in the decision-making at Twitter,” Mr. Lansing said. “I would need some time to understand whether Twitter can be trusted again.” In reaction, Mr. Musk posted on Twitter, “Defund @NPR”. It appears PBS has also decided to boycott the platform, having not tweeted since 8 April.

Meanwhile, the saga has been used by some politicians who seek to diminish or remove the roles of public service media. In Canada, the Opposition Conservative Party leader, Pierre Poilievre, asked Twitter to label CBC’s English news related accounts as “Government–funded Media”. In response, CBC/Radio-Canada said, although it could not comment on the motives behind the letter, such a label would be wrong. “Twitter’s own policy defines government-funded media as cases where the government “may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content,” which is clearly not the case with CBC/Radio-Canada,” the public broadcaster said in a statement.

Our concerns

The Public Media Alliance’s Secretariat is deeply concerned by the impact such labelling could have on trusted independent public media worldwide and the public’s confidence in them. There seems to have been a lack of consultation, and the lack of transparency and explanation as to why these labels have been added is troubling.

Applying a label like “Government-funded Media” to an independent public media organisation without a nuanced definition, implies that the organisation is beholden to the government, which is not the case. Many people use Twitter to source news, but the incorrect labelling could contribute to misguided distrust of, and diminished access to, PSM organisations that play an important, accountable, and vital role in accurately informing society.

Furthermore, by ‘defining’ public media exclusively regarding their funding mechanisms is an oversimplification of whether these organisations are independent or not. There are many other factors to be considered, such as editorial independence and governance, and each has a nuanced context to consider.

Find out more about funding public media: PSM Funding Models

Additionally, there remain significant questions over the application of these labels. If transparency is indeed the motive, will this be rolled out to include private media, especially in cases where there has been significant media capture? And if it is meant to provide users with context about the source of news, why have the labels only been added to one singular account rather than across all affiliated accounts?

The BBC has continued tweeting despite the label, but the decision to stop tweeting from PBS and NPR demonstrates the damage such labelling has caused. The social media platform presents an opportunity for public service media and other news outlets to reach audiences, and provide them with verified and accurate information in an environment where mis- and disinformation flourishes. But in the end, through defining NPR and PBS as “Government-funded Media” and equating federal funding with government involvement over editorial content, Twitter itself has fuelled misinformation.