Chinese, Russian and other organisations that are deemed ‘state-controlled’ will be labelled with immediate effect. What might this mean for credible journalism?

Facebook is adding labels to content from state-controlled news organisations, the company announced Thursday.

“We’re providing greater transparency into these publishers because they combine the influence of a media organisation with the strategic backing of a state, and we believe people should know if the news they read is coming from a publication that may be under the influence of a government,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s Head of Cybersecurity Policy, in a statement published on the company’s website.

According to a partial list that Facebook provided, labels will be applied immediately to outlets like China’s CCTV and Xinhua, Russia’s Sputnik and Russia Today (RT), and Iran’s Press TV. The company plans to apply the label to about 200 pages.

RT denounced the initiative and attacked it as counterproductive.

“Telling the entire rest of the world what it can and cannot say, is the definition of a technological dictatorship and censorship,” an RT Press Office spokesperson told TRT World.

“Labeling foreign editorially independent news outlets as anything but is, on top of fostering prejudice and xenophobia, a prime example of the very fake news that Facebook is supposedly trying to combat.”

The move comes amid a crisis over Facebook’s hands-off treatment of misleading posts by US President Donald Trump, which was fact-checked by Twitter. 

The Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman, Geng Shuang, told reporters during a daily briefing in Beijing earlier today, that social media firms should not selectively design barriers for media agencies.

“We hope that the relevant social media platform can put aside the ideological bias and hold an open and accepting attitude towards each country’s media role,” he said.

The move comes months after the tech giant revealed their intention to label media outlets that are wholly or partially under the editorial control of a government. This comes as part of its ongoing electoral integrity efforts to improve transparency across the platform.

Facebook has come under pressure in the US to ensure that transparency and protections are in place, especially in light of its platform being accused of hosting incorrect information, and being involved in electoral interference during the 2016 presidential race.

Facebook will also block any ads that target US users from state-run entities “out of an abundance of caution” in the months ahead of the next presidential election which will take place this November. Outside the US, paid content will receive labels.

It will not use label media outlets affiliated with individual political figures or parties.

Under the policy, which will likely be enacted over the next week, news organisations “that may be under the influence of a government” will have a subtle but clear label, as will their posts.

The labels will begin to appear on the platform’s Ad Library Page view, Pages, and the Page Transparency section.

In an example of what the labels will look like, Facebook has provided sample images for mobile and desktop displays:

How Facebook plans to mark the content of several state-run media organisations.
How Facebook plans to mark the content of several state-run media organisations. ()

Gleicher added that Facebook has consulted with 65 experts “specializing in media, governance and human rights and development” to create its own labelling criteria, which includes an outlet’s funding sources, editorial independence, ownership structure, governance and accountability mechanisms.

There will be an appeals process for organisations that believe a label has been incorrectly applied.

Facebook asserts it won’t apply any tag should a media organisation prove it has editorial independence and there are enough protections in place.

To do so, outlets will have to demonstrate statutory protection of editorial independence in their host country, the presence of organisational procedures to ensure independence, and third-party confirmation of its statutory compliance and established procedures.

Facebook isn’t the first company to adopt such a move.

YouTube implemented labels in 2018, but it only appeared if content originated from a publisher that was government-funded and not “controlled”.

Outlets like Voice of America decried the decision claiming that while financed by the US government, they possess a “legislative firewall” that prevents editorial interference. 

While Twitter does not label, it blocks state-controlled news media entities from advertising on its platform.

Unclear implications 

However, the process of identifying state-run news is not as straightforward as it may seem and could have far-reaching consequences for media coverage. 

State-controlled companies are on a broad spectrum that range from outlets like RT, to those like the BBC, which has a tradition of independence from UK government policy.

Organisations like Al Jazeera are funded by the Qatari government but maintain that they have complete editorial independence and operate through a foundation in the Gulf state.

In a letter submitted to Facebook back in November, it feared that being slapped with the state-controlled label “would cause irreparable harm to the network.”

Furthermore, the implications for reporters from those outlets branded as state-run are unclear. Labelling could also be weaponised by media organisations who don’t agree with coverage being carried out by a competitor network.

Notably, labels will not be applied to news posts or organisations that reference or base their reporting on state-controlled media. Nor is the information published by outlets that are labelled subject to fact-checking.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies