NPR sounds alarm after Musk's Twitter contradicts own policy to label it "state-affiliated media"

“This only helps actual propaganda outlets blend in with legitimate news outlets,” a disinformation expert warned

Published April 5, 2023 2:44PM (EDT)

Twitter owner Elon Musk is seen with a Twitter logo in photo illustration. (STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Twitter owner Elon Musk is seen with a Twitter logo in photo illustration. (STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Twitter added a "state-affiliated media" label to NPR's account on Tuesday, implying that the Washington-based nonprofit news organization is either connected to or controlled by the federal government and has therefore compromised its editorial independence. 

This is the same label that the social media site uses for propaganda outlets such as the Russian-government-owned RT and the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper. However, Twitter has not used the designation for other media organizations that gain substantial funding from governments such as The Voice of America, the BBC and the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes. 

While NPR does rely on some government funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, officials have asserted since its founding in 1970 that it is editorially independent of any government agency or funding source. They get the bulk of direct financial support from two sources: sponsorships and fees paid by hundreds of member stations, as their website states.

"NPR operates independently of the U.S. government. And while federal money is important to the overall public media system, NPR gets less than 1% of its annual budget, on average, from federal sources," the outlet wrote in response on Wednesday. 

NPR requested Twitter remove the "state" designation label on Tuesday night when it first appeared. 

"We were disturbed to see last night that Twitter has labeled NPR as 'state-affiliated media,'" president and chief executive John Lansing said in a statement on Wednesday. "NPR and our Member stations are supported by millions of listeners who depend on us for the independent, fact-based journalism we provide. NPR stands for freedom of speech and holding the powerful accountable. It is unacceptable for Twitter to label us this way. A vigorous, vibrant free press is essential to the health of our democracy."

State-affiliated media organizations face different consequences on the site according to Twitter's rules, which state they "will not recommend or amplify [such] accounts or their tweets." This may have negative effects on NPR's social reach and that of its advertisers. 

Twitter has yet to explain why the label was put on NPR's account, but it seems to fall in line with CEO Elon Musk's erratic and punitive decision-making surrounding news-media accounts since he took over the company last year. Musk last week had The New York Times' blue verified badge removed after the outlet refused to pay for his new verification scheme.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

The NPR designation is inconsistent with Twitter's own rules, The Washington Post reported. The company's published rules say that state-affiliated media are "outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution."

They clearly state that "state-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK and NPR in the US, for example, are not defined as state-affiliated media for the purposes of this policy."

However, a new version of the rules published on Tuesday removed NPR from that sentence. "At least one page on the Twitter site still listed NPR as an exception as of late morning Wednesday," the outlet reported.

NPR officials requested that Twitter remove the label, initially assuming it was a mistake, NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara said. "We were not warned. It happened quite suddenly last night," she explained.

In response to NPR's email requesting details about what led to the company's decision, Twitter's press account auto-replied with a poop emoji, "a message it has been sending to journalists for weeks."

Musk acknowledged the new tag on Tuesday by responding to a tweet with a screenshot showing Twitter's policy defining state-affiliated media. "Seems accurate," wrote the CEO, who has a history of targeting news organizations and journalists. 

"Wow, way to make this label meaningless. NPR is absolutely not even comparable to propaganda outlets like RT & Sputnik, which have no editorial independence," wrote Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist who studies disinformation at the University of Maryland. 

"This is ridiculous and only helps actual propaganda outlets blend in with legitimate news outlets," she added.

As of Wednesday morning, NPR wrote, Twitter has not applied the "state-affiliated" label to other outlets that directly or indirectly receive any public funds, such as PBS

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

MORE FROM Samaa Khullar

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brief Elon Musk Npr Politics Twitter