Government or publicly funded: What do Twitter's new labels on news outlets mean?

U.S. public broadcaster PBS has joined NPR in ditching Twitter in a spat over how the social media company labels news outlets that receive funding from governments.

After Twitter labelled NPR as 'state-affiliated media' last week, the public radio network stopped posting

A sign of the blue bird Twitter logo on its headquarters office building.
In early April, Twitter labelled NPR as 'state-affiliated media' before recategorizing it as 'government-funded media.' In a statement, NPR said that the change 'undermines' the broadcaster's credibility by suggesting it lacks independence from governments. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

U.S. public broadcaster PBS has joined NPR in ditching Twitter in a spat over how the social media company labels news outlets that receive funding from governments.

Twitter flagged NPR as "U.S. state-affiliated media" — a term suggesting it takes editorial direction from the government — earlier this month. The badge was attached to the broadcaster's Twitter profile page and tweets sent by the account.

The move was seemingly related to the fact NPR receives some government funding for its services — but that government money is only a fraction of its total funding, while the majority of their operating budget comes from corporate sponsorship and programming fees, the broadcaster says.

NPR, which airs programs on public radio stations across the country, called the move "unacceptable." Twitter owner Elon Musk responded, writing "seems accurate" in a tweet.

The label was later changed to read "government-funded media," but on Wednesday, NPR announced it would stop all activity on the social network "because the platform is taking actions that undermine our credibility by falsely implying that we are not editorially independent."

A screenshot of the NPR Twitter page.
NPR had not tweeted from its official Twitter account since April 4 after it was first labelled as 'state-affiliated media' and later 'government-funded media.' The public broadcaster updated followers on April 12 with other ways to follow the outlet, after it announced it would no longer use the account. (@NPR/Twitter)

Twitter also added the "government-funded media" label to the main account of the U.K.'s BBC. During an interview with the broadcaster, Musk said the label would be changed to "publicly funded media." 

Seventy per cent of BBC's funding, approximately $6.3 billion Cdn, comes from a license fee paid by British households.

What is state-affiliated media?

According to a post on the company's website, media companies can be given one of three labels on Twitter: state-affiliated, government-funded or publicly funded.

Before Musk's takeover of the social network in October, certain outlets including Russia Today and China's CGTN, were already labelled as state-affiliated. 

Twitter describes state-affiliated media 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."

"[State-affiliated media] is essentially a mouthpiece for the government and it has, as its primary purpose, getting the government's message out to the audience," said Matthew Johnson, director of education for Ottawa-based media literacy organization MediaSmarts.

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In an online space crowded with unreliable news sources, he said such labels were a useful indication of whether an outlet could be trusted.

"We do know that a lot of news consumers aren't going to do that basic step of, for instance, Googling a source or looking it up on Wikipedia," he said.

Funded by the government — or the public?

Where the water gets muddy is in Twitter's distinction between "government-funded" and "publicly funded" media.

Twitter defines government-funded media as "outlets where the government provides some or all of the outlet's funding and may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content." Twitter links to a Wikipedia list of publicly funded broadcasters, saying it may be used to determine which outlets get the designation. That list includes CBC.

Publicly funded outlets, Twitter says, are "organizations that receive funding from license fees, individual contributions, public financing, and commercial financing."

Johnson says media organizations are not typically referred to as "publicly funded," but rather public media that may receive government money, in addition to revenue from other sources such as advertising, corporate and philanthropic contributions or consumers. 

"Public media is media that does not have profit as a goal. Public media exists to serve some sort of public good," he said.

A man in black shirt and jacket speaks.
Twitter owner Elon Musk tweeted 'Defund @NPR' in response to questions about why the broadcaster was labelled 'government-funded media.' (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

But Johnson adds that just because a media organization is government-funded doesn't mean there isn't independence from the political party of the day.

While a government-funded outlet may be aware of the ruling government's influence and position, Johnson said "they're probably also going to be conscious that if they're too soft on the government, the opposition might take it out on them when they take power."

"If you're in any kind of democratic society, there are countervailing pressures on a government-funded news outlet because they know it's not always going to be the same party or the same group in power," he added.

Poilievre calls for label on CBC accounts

In a letter addressed to Twitter's Musk, posted to the social network on Wednesday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre appealed to the billionaire to add the "government-funded media" label to CBC's Twitter account. 

Poilievre pointed to Twitter's guideline that such outlets "may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content" as rationale.

CBC said in a statement on Wednesday that is "clearly not the case."

"As every Canadian knows, CBC/Radio-Canada is publicly funded. Its editorial independence is protected in law in the Broadcasting Act," a spokesperson for the broadcaster said.

Twitter has not publicly commented on Poilievre's request. It also has not added labels to any of CBC's Twitter accounts.

In its 2021-2022 annual report, the CBC reported government funding of $1.24 billion. It also reported $651 million in revenue, largely from advertising during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games which were held in the same fiscal year and stronger demand for television advertising than the previous year. In the fiscal year 2020-2021, CBC reported $1.39 billion in government funding and $504 million in revenue.

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press