Twitter announced Thursday that it would affix a special label to the accounts of key government officials and “state-affiliated media entities” and their staff. In the blog post announcing the decision, Twitter clarified that these labels would apply only to the five permanent U.N. Security Council members (China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.). However, what the post said about these state-affiliated outlets is particularly interesting:
State-affiliated media is defined 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. Unlike independent media, state-affiliated media frequently use their news coverage as a means to advance a political agenda. We believe that people have the right to know when a media account is affiliated directly or indirectly with a state actor. State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US for example, will not be labeled.
As Axios‘s coverage of the move notes, Twitter had previously banned ads by state-owned media, in addition to all political advertising on its website. The company says that it will eventually broaden the state-affiliation labeling policy.
While Twitter did not name any particular countries, there should be little doubt that some significant portion of the rationale for this comes from China’s activities online. Back in June, I wrote about Twitter’s efforts to take down fake accounts spreading disinformation on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. The company deserves credit for acting on the problem, but it still showed a blind spot with regard to accounts operated by Chinese diplomats and state media.
State-affiliated accounts have played a significant role in the CCP’s global disinformation campaigns on a number of issues, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the origins of the coronavirus. This spring, a foreign ministry spokesperson shared two tweets promoting a conspiracy theory alleging that the U.S. army brought the virus to China. Twitter later added a fact check to the tweets, after it affixed a fact check to a post on the site by President Trump about mail-in voting.
The CCP’s most alarming activities on the site might be its attempts to shape the international narrative on its concentration camps and political re-education efforts in Xinjiang, which some observers have described as a genocide. Videos of smiling and dancing Uighur Muslims are a staple on the accounts of state media outlets and the foreign ministry’s spokespeople. To this day, previous tweets by the foreign ministry’s Zhao Lijian whitewashing the human-rights abuses in Xinjiang remain unlabeled (with the exception of Twitter’s new labels for government accounts). No doubt, they’re chock-full of disinformation and ripe for fact checking or other means of content moderation. Meanwhile, Twitter has maintained its blue-check verification for Zhao’s account, in addition to other Chinese government accounts on the site.
Bloomberg News reported last summer that Twitter runs a program where it teaches Chinese government officials to use the platform, despite the fact that it is banned for use by ordinary people in China. In June, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee gave Twitter a “D-” on their “social media report card.” They wrote that Twitter failed to remove CCP disinformation from their platform, and that the accounts might violate “Twitter’s own policy because the CCP is an organization that is known to commit violence against religious and ethnic minorities, among other groups.”
Affixing labels that more clearly show the affiliations of state-backed accounts is a good step, but it does not cut to the core of the problem.