Facebook has started labeling Russian, Chinese and other state-controlled media outlets. The company said in a blog post on Thursday that they are labeling pages that are “wholly or partially under the editorial control of their government”. Later this year, Facebook will also start labeling ads from these outlets.
Facebook has decided to start labeling these pages because “people should know if the news they read is coming from a publication that may be under the influence of a government”. With this move, the company shows that they believe that media and state influence should stay separated.
People should be aware of the origin of the news that they read. They need to consider whether they are reading a story written by a critical journalist, or a journalist working for the government.
The labels are based on several factors. Firstly, the ownership and funding of an outlet is reviewed. But the company will also look at the level of transparency around their sources, and whether there is a corrections policy in place. And, of course, the media freedom in the host country is considered.
Facebook will not label any US based news organizations. The company explained in an interview with Reuters that “even US government-run outlets have editorial independence”. The label will also not be used for individual political figures or parties.
If an outlet is labelled by Facebook, it can decide to appeal this decision. But if they fail to prove that it has been wrongly labelled the notice will be added to the page worldwide. The labels will appear on posts in the US only, but will eventually be introduced in other countries as well.
The warning reads as follows: “This publisher is wholly or partially under the editorial control of a state. This is determined by a range of factors, including but not limited to funding, structure and journalistic standards”.
There are some pages and posts that have already been labelled. These outlets have been previously blamed for spreading propaganda in the US. They include Russia’s Sputnik and RT, and Daily China, which are now defined as state-controlled media.
Later this summer the measure will be extended and the company will also block ads. Outlets that have been labelled will then no longer be able to advertise in the US. According to Facebook’s cybersecurity policy head Nathaniel Gleicher, this will be “to provide and extra layer of protection against various types of foreign influence in the public debate ahead of the November 2020 election in the US”.
The ads will not be blocked outside the US, but they will be labelled.
Protecting the Election
The labels are part of Facebook’s election integrity efforts. The company struggled to keep foreign news outlets from meddling in the 2016 elections. It failed to stop Russian use of the platform. So Facebook has put an effort in improving the reliability of their sources since the previous elections. Hopefully they have done enough to avoid a similar situation this November.
The plan to label media outlets was announced in October of last year. The company has decided to roll out the feature in a time when it is facing a lot of criticism, because the company is choosing not to fact-check politicians. Last week, Donald Trump sent out a tweet that was hidden behind a notice on Twitter. This happened because the tweet promoted hate and violence, which goes against Twitter’s policies.
Facebook has similar policies concerning hate speech, but decided not to touch the president’s message. The company’s policy around incitement of violence allows discussion around the use of state force. The company therefore decided to leave the post up.
Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, explained the company’s position by saying that they “think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force”. “Unlike Twitter, we do not have a policy of putting a warning in front of posts that may incite violence because we believe that if a post incites violence, it should be removed regardless of whether it is newsworthy, even if it comes from a politician,” wrote Zuckerberg.
Facebook is not the first platform to implement labels like these. YouTube did a similar experiment in 2018, when it decided to start labeling state-funded news channels. But critics say that YouTube failed to label all state news outlets. Which allowed the outlets that weren’t labelled to profit from videos with misinformation and propaganda, because of the smaller number of competitors.
Twitter does not label state-controlled media, but they have stopped accepting advertising from state-controlled media last August.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang made a statement about Facebook’s labels during a daily briefing in Beijing. He said that “social media companies should not selectively create obstacles 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 added.
A spokesperson for Russia Today decribed the move as “a prime example of fake-news”. In an email to CNN Business, the spokesperson said Facebook is trying to tell “the entire rest of the world what it can and cannot say,” comparing it to “the definition of a technological dictatorship and censorship”.