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Twitter labels NPR's account as 'state-affiliated media,' which is untrue

Twitter CEO Elon Musk acknowledged a change in NPR's status on the social media platform he owns that now designates the news outlet as "state-affiliated media."
Screenshot by NPR
Twitter CEO Elon Musk acknowledged a change in NPR's status on the social media platform he owns that now designates the news outlet as "state-affiliated media."

Updated April 5, 2023 at 3:35 PM ET

Twitter added a "state-affiliated media" tag to NPR's main account on Tuesday, applying the same label to the nonprofit media company that Twitter uses to designate official state mouthpieces and propaganda outlets in countries such as Russia and China.

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.

Noting the millions of listeners who support and rely upon NPR for "independent, fact-based journalism," NPR CEO John Lansing stated, "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."

NPR officials have asked Twitter to remove the label. They initially assumed it was applied by mistake, NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara said. "We were not warned. It happened quite suddenly last night," Lara said.

In response to an NPR email for this story seeking comment and requesting details about what in particular might have led to the new designation, the company's press account auto-replied with a poop emoji — a message it has been sending to journalists for weeks.

When asked about Twitter's decision during the White House's daily briefing, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to address Twitter's content rules specifically. But she also defended NPR's journalism.

"There is no doubt of the independence of NPR journalists," Jean-Pierre said. "If you've ever been on the receiving end of their questions, you know this."

"Seems accurate," Musk says of state-affiliated label

Twitter's owner and CEO, Elon Musk, acknowledged the new tag was applied to NPR. Responding to a tweet about the shift, Musk posted an image of a screenshot showing Twitter's policy defining state-affiliated media, with a short message: "Seems accurate."

Twitter's policy 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."

As recently as Tuesday, Twitter's policy page stated explicitly that NPR would not be included in this label — before the wording was altered to remove NPR.

"State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US for example, are not defined as state-affiliated media for the purposes of this policy," the document said.

That language echoes an explanation that Twitter gavein 2020, when it announced the state-affiliated media label. At least one page on the Twitter site still listed NPR as an exception as of late morning Wednesday.

A former Twitter exec warns of a false equivalency

Those criticizing the new label include Yoel Roth, who was Twitter's head of trust and safety for nearly eight years. He resigned from Twitter last November.

"Twitter's decision to label NPR as a state media outlet flies in the face of years of research, all evidence about NPR's funding and governance, and Twitter's own policies and principles," Roth said in a message to NPR.

Roth has previously said he left Twitter because he saw the platform being undermined by "capricious decision-making." In this instance, he sees something more pernicious.

"Establishing a false equivalency between public broadcasters and editorial control of media by government is misleading," he said, "and undermines the essential work of providing transparency about state-backed propaganda efforts around the world."

The full effects of NPR being labeled as state-affiliated media aren't yet known, but it could reduce NPR's visibility on the platform. Twitter's policy states, "In the case of state-affiliated media entities, Twitter will not recommend or amplify accounts or their Tweets with these labels to people."

More than 99% of NPR's funds do not come from federal sources

NPR is an independent, non-profit media organization that gets the bulk of its direct financial support from two sources: sponsorships and fees paid by hundreds of member stations, as its website states.

NPR receives federal funds indirectly because they play a vital role in supporting member stations through annual grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But those stations also rely on audience donations and other revenue — and they purchase programs and content from across the public media ecosystem, not solely from NPR.

A very limited portion of NPR's budget comes from direct federal sources. "On average, less than 1% of NPR's annual operating budget comes in the form of grants from CPB and federal agencies and departments," according to NPR's website.

Critics cite erosion of Twitter's relationship with news outlets

The abrupt appearance of the same label affixed to known propaganda outlets such as Russia's Tass and China's People's Daily set off a range of reactions, from praise to outrage. Critics of the move saw it as another sign of Twitter's troubled relationship with the media, which has deteriorated since billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter last year.

Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist who studies disinformation at the University of Maryland, warned that Twitter's move could muddy the water in a news environment where it's already difficult to decipher which outlets are reliable and have editorial independence.

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

Twitter has also repeatedly said it will remake its landscape of verified and trusted accounts, as part of its push to get users to pay to have blue checkmarks on the platform. Experts have warned the initiative would give new status to misinformation peddlers — and concerns deepened earlier this month, when Twitter revoked the verified check mark on The New York Times' account.

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

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.