Twitter’s recent changes to its algorithm have raised concerns among journalists and disinformation scholars. The platform has reportedly been giving greater prominence to government and state-run media accounts, including those that are often criticised for spreading disinformation. For example, Sarah Hurst, an independent journalist in the UK, noticed more tweets from Russian government accounts, Russian state media and government mouthpieces in her “For You” tab. Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter last year has led to significant upheaval at the social media giant, with some analysts arguing that the changes to the algorithm have troubling implications for public discourse, democracy and the future of the platform itself.
Darren Linvill, an associate professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University who researches social media disinformation, said that Twitter had historically been good at giving people only what they were vaguely looking for. However, Musk’s attempts to shake things up have led to changes in the algorithm that have been developed over more than a decade to be successful in giving people what they want. Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer in digital media at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), said that the site’s recommendations were now “a bit out of control” compared with the more curated approach of before. Some people are seeing harmful war propaganda relating to the Ukraine war coming from Russia and ministers, or from diplomatic accounts, or from Russia Today.
Prior to Musk’s purchase of Twitter last October, the platform had taken steps to reduce the reach of certain state-affiliated accounts. In 2020, Twitter introduced the label “state-affiliated media”, which it defines 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.” In practice, this label was almost exclusively applied to Russian and Chinese government media accounts, although Twitter originally said the label would be rolled out to media from the five countries that sit on the United Nations Security Council. The platform’s guidelines ultimately excluded outlets like the BBC in the UK and National Public Radio, also known as NPR, in the US, both of which receive government funding but are widely regarded as editorially independent.
However, those rules are changing, sometimes on a practically daily basis. Last week, Musk appeared to change Twitter’s definition of “state-affiliated media” by briefly adding the label to NPR, an outlet that right-leaning Americans often accuse of having a liberal bias. The label was removed within days after blowback from critics who defended NPR’s record of editorial independence and noted that government funding accounts for only 2% of the outlet’s budget. Twitter added a new “government-funded media” label to NPR’s account in its place. The designation, which has also been applied to the BBC, PBS and Voice of America in recent days, refers to “outlets where the government provides some or all of the outlet’s funding and may have varying degrees of government involvement over editorial content”. The new label has not been added to some other state-funded media, including Al Jazeera and France 24, which are funded by the Qatari and French governments, respectively.
Taken together, the changes at Twitter make it easier to spread propaganda and “fake news” about current events, including major conflicts like the war in Ukraine. Graham said that some of the propaganda was conspiracy theories about neo-Nazis taking over Ukraine. All of them are trying to justify and provide this narrative justification for what Russia is doing, and all of them are trying to appeal to audiences who will amplify them in one way or another. When false and misleading narratives pollute and cause chaos, they get oxygenated by the rest of the media ecosystem. When that happens, it’s payday for state media.