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MIT Technology Review

Twitter’s state-media ban should include Voice of America

Twitter and Facebook have hosted ads from US-backed outlets, sometimes even illegally.

August 20, 2019
Poster with Voices of America logoPoster with Voices of America logo
Poster with Voices of America logo
Ms. Tech; Logo: Voices of America

Twitter is no longer accepting advertising from state-controlled news organizations, after being criticized for letting Chinese state media buy ads meant to discredit Hong Kong protesters. The move has garnered praise, in part because Facebook has yet to follow suit

But if Twitter plans to take a principled stand against state propaganda, its ban should extend to media outlets backed by the US government, like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. At the very least, researchers say, social platforms have a responsibility to flag content being promoted by state-sponsored media.

Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were created by the American government to spread news overseas during the propaganda wars of World War II and the Cold War. Today, those outlets and a few others are supervised by the US Agency for Global Media; the funding comes from Congress. Though longtime insiders say that the outlets support a US-centric agenda, they emphasize editorial independence, so they may not be subject to the advertising ban Twitter imposed this week. 

A Twitter spokesperson told MIT Technology Review that the company would not comment on whether specific outlets would be banned. Back in February, though, a Twitter representative told Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University, that the company does not have specific restrictions for pages from USAGM. The agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter’s new ban makes exceptions for taxpayer-funded groups with independent oversight, like the BBC and NPR, which receives federal funding in the US. But those organizations receive a mix of government and private funding. “Places like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are essentially an arm of the US government because they receive 100% of their funding, or close to it, from the US government,” says Weston Sager, a lawyer with the law firm Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell, who has written about state media and propaganda. A board of directors elects the leader of an outlet like NPR, but the CEO of the USAGM is appointed by the US president. 

In fact, these organizations are considered a form of propaganda under a piece of legislation called the Smith-Mundt Act. Before being weakened in 2013, the Smith-Mundt Act prohibited outlets like Voice of America from broadcasting within the US.

Even now, Voice of America and its brethren are not allowed to target specific Americans through Facebook ads. But last year Grygiel found that such outlets had broken the law by buying Facebook ads aimed at specific American groups. A House investigation later found at least 860 violations of the law. 

There are differences between Voice of America and a publication like Russia Today or China’s Xinhua News Agency, but “at the end of the day, it’s all state media,” Grygiel says, and state media has enormous potential to influence public opinion and be abused, because governments have such deep pockets.

“We need bright lines when it comes to what’s independent and what’s controlled by the government,” they say. “To get in there and split hairs is not serving the public.” Grygiel suggests that Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms should attribute content from all state-controlled media, so that the public can understand the sources of funding and the possible slant. 

Correction: Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are both funded by the USAGM, an independent federal agency that receives its funding from Congress. An earlier version of the article misstated that the funding comes from the State Department.